Every so often I read a book that speaks to me directly and stays with me long after the last page has been turned. Inevitably, these books tell one woman’s story that reflects the truths and emotions experienced by all women. Of course, these truths and emotions are probably experienced by everyone (and in fact a male friend who also read this book has said that it spoke to him in the same way) but because I am a woman, I can only tell you about Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin from a woman’s point of view.
The story is told through 40 brief chapters, reflecting 40 rooms inhabited throughout a woman’s life. Through these rooms, we watch this woman grow from an imaginative child who sees her mother sifting through a box of her own memories, and imagines her as a mermaid, into a woman with six children who has pushed aside her dreams of becoming a poet for the sake of raising her family. At some point during her journey, though, she is no longer deferring her dreams for a higher good, but using her daily responsibilities as an excuse to no longer pursue them. At what point did this happen? Was it a conscious decision (nowhere does it seem like it) or just an ongoing postponement that finally eroded her vision? And what does that tell us, the readers, about the consequences of postponing our dreams?
Early on in the story there is a mysterious man who comes to her in her dreams and who questions her and offers her advice. At one point he says, “You can spend your days baking cookies for your offspring, or — as ever through the ages — you can become a madwoman, a nomad, a warrior, a saint. But if you do decide to follow the way of the few, you must remember this: Whenever you come to a fork in the road, always choose the harder path, otherwise the path of least resistance will be chosen for you.”
As the woman moves through adulthood, the reader senses a shift where her path does become chosen for her because she herself has neglected to choose. It is interesting to note also that this woman is a nameless narrator through childhood and young adulthood, but in middle age, when the shift becomes apparent, she begins to call herself “Mrs. Caldwell”, narrating her own story as if “Mrs. Caldwell” is an entity separate from herself. When I reached this part of the story, I have to say I found it genius. This woman had become so removed from herself, that she told her own story as a stranger would!
Forty Rooms has a thread of the surreal or supernatural running through it and this is especially prevalent in the early and later parts of the woman’s life, from her childhood imaginings, to the dream visits of the mysterious man, to the final rooms of her life where her memories and “what-ifs” crowd reality. In the end, I was left with an understanding of how easily a life can slip away if one allows the path of least resistance to be chosen for them, and really, how little time each of us has to realize our dreams in the first place! What a wake-up call!
Few books have stayed with me the way Forty Rooms has, and certainly fewer have motivated me with a sense of positive urgency to take a good look at my life, accept the choices I’ve made, and recognize where and why I may have strayed from my early dreams. The good news? While not a story of redemption for Mrs. Caldwell, it can be for the readers who take her message to heart.