REVIEWED BY JODY HOBBS HESLER
Susan Tepper’s dear Petrov is a collection of related epistolary vignettes, with accompanying spare and evocative drawings by Irene Koronas. The letters always address a never-present Petrov, and the unnamed woman writing them is Petrov’s lover or wife. The text ruminates – brooding over Petrov’s absence, the paucity of food, or the hardscrabble existence in a remote mountain outpost; or sharing hopes for the future; or describing moments of the letter writer’s solitary life. Throughout, Petrov wavers in our understanding somewhere between lover and abandoner. It is a brief, ethereal work, singular in its approach and in its effects.
Its experimental format makes dear Petrov difficult to categorize. Is it a novel? A collection of flash pieces surrounding the same characters? Is it closer to poetry or prose? If the book were music, it would be as stark and slow and haunting as the passage in one letter where the writer asks Petrov, “Whatever could be moving across your mind? What oceans and stars, what guiding path? I fear you lost forever …. A matter of seasons! Winter shrinking you body and soul” (15). If the book were a landscape, it would be a mountainous expanse of snow studded only by bare trees and black birds, as bereft and lonely as some of the letters’ fragmentary imagery, such as, “The walls when the sun goes down appear blank. Faces spliced at windows where people never look in” (161).
Magic and mystery infuse the work. “Don’t think I blame you,” the woman writes in a time of great shortage. “I blame the moon. The sodden treetops. I blame the gypsy with the one crossed eye who set me wrong on the path. I blame this land for its harsh curve northward. The river running bleak with so few fish. All the things I expected, dear Petrov, have become the trouble here now” (43). Another time she writes, “I dance very fast. Faster than wood gremlins whirling into butter” (33). Against the backdrop of the country homesteader’s hard life, these moments, and others like them, blend with the superstitions of lost generations.
The nontraditional form deemphasizes some of what we normally expect from fiction, such as the establishment of facts and the scaffolding of structure. We are left to wonder much about who, when, and where our characters really are. For example, are we in a remote, wintry Russian village? An American frontier outpost? Some other country? Petrov, described as a soldier, seems to hail from a past era. What century are we in? Which war blasts within earshot of our narrator? Most times she feels distant and separated from every evidence of society, but where is she exactly? Is her remoteness literal? There are allusions to a rigorous and exacting farm life, to riding horseback in the house, and to a sack of money Petrov delivers on one of his junkets at home. Are the farming hardships and indoor horsebackriding meant to be real or figurative? Is this Petrov’s home exactly? Is his money real? Are he and the letter writer some sort of ghosts and these letters merely relics of their lost existence? Surely not every reader will be satisfied to leave so many questions unanswered, but the text never pretends to promise those answers. The prose delivers senses, impressions, and emotions rather than facts.
Tepper’s words are lyrical and dreamlike, so even though they don’t provide the usual fictional logistics, they do provide much that is lovely. Adding Koronas’ drawings, which aptly capture Tepper’s otherworldly mood, makes dear Petrov an intriguing, unique read.
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, feature articles, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in Gargoyle, The Georgia Review, Sequestrum, [PANK], Steel Toe Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prime Number, Pearl, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah (VOX Press), Charlottesville Family Magazine, and several regional prize anthologies and other publications. She has been a fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and, currently, she is an MFA candidate at Lesley University. You can find out more about her writing at jodyhobbshesler.com.