Wednesday, April 20, 2011
The book's narrator is an eight year old boy who lives with his grandparents. Although the book draws a reader in with its humor, as the story progresses, a complicated and sad family history unravels through the eyes of this child. We learn the boy was not abandoned by his mother, as he is repeatedly told on a daily basis, but was actually taken away from her by the forceful grandmother. All of his mother's attempts to reunite with her son are thwarted by the grandmother.
The boy's life is micromanaged by the grandmother, who in her seemingly good intentions, oversteps the boundary into child abuse. Because of her blinding love for the boy, she takes him to see a multitude of doctors, causing him to miss weeks of school. Growing up with no friends and with numerous diseases fabricated by pediatric specialists, his life is filled with gloom and boredom. He never gets to celebrate his birthday, eat ice cream for fear of catching a cold, or go on an amusement park ride for fear of getting hurt. He eats bland food and does not have fun toys.
His boredom is only interrupted by the grandmother's frequent fits of anger that fill him with terror. Her anger can be triggered by any of her grandson's innocent mistakes - a homework error, a shirt stain, or refusal to take his medicine. The grandmother's fits of anger are accompanied by high-pitched monologues that eat away at his self-esteem and leave him feeling worthless.
Despite her pure evil parenting, the grandmother does not create the impression of a villain. Her rants disclose those events of her life that damaged her psychological well-being and turned her into a tyrant toward her family members, especially her daughter, whom she considers to be an unfit mother, and her grandson.
This book is Pavel Sanaev's autobiographical account of his childhood. Although his mother finally succeeded in taking him back, the years of terror he spent at his grandparents' followed him into adulthood. Writing his story in his late 'teens and early twenties became his way of therapy. It was first published in 1996 in a magazine, then re-printed in a book format in 2003, and later made into a movie in 2009.
This story is interesting from many perspectives - psychological, as it raises questions of overprotective parenting and its damaging effects; historical - because of Sanaev's portrait of growing up in 1970s Moscow's Soviet reality; and even cultural, as Sanaev comes from a family of well-known film actors, which contributed to the book's popularity.