Book review: ‘A Terrible Country’ by Keith Gessen a must-read

Given the news cycle over the last 18 months, the fact that “A Terrible Country” takes place in Russia might make some people hesitant to read another word about that country, lest unpleasant thoughts intrude upon their summer idylls. But it would be a shame if anyone avoided Keith Gessen’s perceptive and entertaining new novel, because what he has to say is very much worth reading.

The book takes place in 2008. Term limits have forced Vladimir Putin to temporarily downgrade his title from president to prime minister, but it is very much Putin’s Russia that Gessen’s protagonist Andrei Kaplan encounters when he leaves New York for Moscow to care for his 89-year-old grandmother.

Kaplan was born in Russia but left as a child, and only knows his native land from brief youthful visits and his career as an academic.

Gessen does a great job capturing Kaplan’s slow process of fitting in and creating a life in a foreign land. It is a feeling that will be familiar to anyone who has lived abroad for long enough to one day wake up and realize they have made a home.

Gessen, who co-founded the lit mag n+1, was already entrenched in the literary scene when his first novel, “All the Sad Young Literary Men,” was published 10 years ago. It was generally well-received but the writing often seemed as if he was trying too hard to be clever — or indeed literary.

Despite dealing with some very literary subject matter, “A Terrible Country” does not take itself quite so seriously, which makes for a much better story and a much better read.