There are some places in the world where it seems, for all the advances in technology and medicine, that people still live in the past. In the case of Marat and Patya, the protagonists of Alisa Ganieva’s deeply affecting novel Bride and Groom (translated by Carol Apollonio), their parents and friends live according to rules laid out centuries before the Soviet Union attempted to impose itself on Dagestan. Marat and Patya return from their jobs in Moscow to their hometown outside of Makhachkala in order to marry whoever they can, because their parents are desperate for their mid-20s children to have children.
Marat is in the middle of a huge legal case when he gets word from his mother that she has booked a local hall for his wedding reception. He doesn’t have a fiancée, but his mother has a list of eligible young Muslim Avar women for him to choose from. Patya is in another sticky situation. At 25, she’s considered on the shelf. She’s been recalled from Moscow because her mother believes she’s on her last chance. As Bride and Groom progresses, Marat and Patya circle closer to each other. Their friends or family (or, in once case, an appalling, possessive, would-be boyfriend) invite them to events where the two see each other. When they do get a chance to talk to each other, there’s a spark—something they don’t feel for any of the potential partners their parents parade in front of them.
In addition to Marat and Patya’s sweet tale and their parents’ marital frenzy, Bride and Groom is packed with characters and stories. I was reminded of earlier Russian novels where meeting characters and getting to know a setting involves listening to funny, horrible, or weird stories about relatives or friends of friends. Here this means learning about Rusik the Nail’s low level skirmishing with increasingly fundamentalist Muslims, the growing legend of local political/crime boss Khalilbek, Patya’s Granny’s stories about how life used to be before the Soviet Union got its hooks in, and much more. Listening to all these stories felt like settling in for a long, tea-fueled chat at a family reunion.
I was furious and heartbroken by the ending to Bride and Groom until I realized two things. First, this is a Russian novel. I have yet to read a story written by a Russian that has an unequivocally happy ending. I keep hoping and I keep getting my heart broken. Second, reading the author’s afterword clued me into the fact that the novel is seeded with references to Sufism and Sufi legend. Not being familiar with anything about Sufism, I missed all of it. Readers who are familiar might see Bride and Groom as much more allegorical than I could. Personally, I was so entertained by this novel (right up until the end) that I don’t really care.
Readers who are okay with laughing and then crying their way through a book will enjoy Bride and Groom. It is frequently hilarious and the social setting is brilliantly drawn. Readers who want a happy ending should probably skip this one or stop reading right before the end.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.