Mother Doll by Katya Apekina: book review

Mother Doll by Katya Apekina 

Overview: Zhenia has a lot of problems. Her marriage is stale and exists more for convenience than love. Add to that the realization that she's pregnant–when neither of them wanted kids. But as her grandmother slowly dies across the country and Zhenia feels adrift, she's tempted to keep the baby. Then, she gets a call from a medium named Paul who says he's channeling her great-grandmother who needs to tell her an important story about her coming of age during the revolution in Russia to be able to release her soul. Zhenia decides to accept the message and the baby, her life suddenly unfurling at once. Overall: 5

Characters: 5 This book is brilliantly written, and that means the characters are great. They all just feel so deeply real–flawed, tangible, messy, wonderful. Apekina isn't shy about sharing the parts of these characters that society wouldn't stand behind. Zhenia has cheated on her husband throughout their marriage with a man who is also married. Ben would rather abandon his family than own up to the reality they're in. Zhenia's family line is full of mothers who will readily admit that having children didn't always make their lives better. That might turn some readers off, but it's so refreshing to read about fully human characters who have their bright spots and their darkness, and it makes the growth in their stories so much more rewarding. I won't get into anything too specific because unpacking their layers is part of the joy of the book, but there's something in the way the cast is brought to life that is utterly undeniable from page 1.

Plot: 5 You never know where this book is going in the best way possible. There's pretty much three intersecting storylines that share real estate in the book. There's Zhenia's present day story concerning her pregnancy and relationship with Ben, there's Paul the medium and their work together as well as flashes of Paul's very specific life, and then there's the immersive historical section where Zhenia's great-grandmother tells the story of her life in Russia. Somehow, they're all weaved together flawlessly within every chapter in a way that's logical, easy to follow, and perfectly melds the events in each timeline to compliment one another. This book could've easily fallen off the rails at any point, but the execution has left me in awe. Once I started reading, I couldn't put the book down. For being a relatively quiet story from the outset, the tension is unrelenting both in the storylines that focus on more personal stakes as well as the one that determines the fate of an entire country.

Writing: 5 I am obsessed with Katya Apekina's writing. I'd never read her work prior to this, but now I'll have to read her debut novel too because I rarely read writing that is both so engaging and fun to read as well as so technically sound. There's an effortlessness to the way the words feel on the page that clearly came from an extreme dedication to honing her craft, and I spent most of this book in utter awe. 

I honestly wasn't sure about the premise when I picked up the book (or even as I started the first few pages). It didn't have much that I liked going for it. I have a deep general annoyance at books where the main character gets unintentionally pregnant and then is suddenly made whole by having a kid. Those stories just rub me the wrong way as someone who doesn't want kids. I'm not super into ghosts or the paranormal or speculative twists in what I read either. And I also don't read much historical fiction anymore that dates past the 1990s or so. But this book had all three elements at once, and it's by far one of my favorites I've read this year. I'm starting to think I'd follow Apekina down any kind of story rabbit hole because her writing is just that good. Everything felt so logical and grounded both within the novel and in the choices made as a storyteller. And I was genuinely thrilled for Zhenia's journey because it felt authentic to her character, not just shoved on her for the convenience of the author. 

I'm still so in awe at the prose style and the blending of so many difficult threads so flawlessly. I read the last 260 pages of the book in practically one sitting. I should've known this would be incredible when I saw Elif Batuman and Lauren Groff's blurbs. 

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

Help Wanted review

Funny Story review

Big Summer Library Haul

May 2024 Recap


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