As her fiancé heads off to fight in World War II, a teenage girl promises that she'll wait for him. He never comes back, but she never gives up. The woman who waits is a time-honored literary symbol that has starred in a number of novels, such as the enthralling "A Very Long Engagement," by French author Sebastien Japrisot.
Now Russian-born writer Andrei Makine adds another page to the annals of undying fidelity with his fine new novel The Woman Who Waited. Makine's books are deceptively slim: He can pack more in a page than many authors can wedge into a chapter. His international bestseller "Dreams of My Russian Summers," for example, features prose so rich a reader half expects mushrooms to sprout as she turns the pages. His ninth novel is less ambitious, but he uses what could have been a clichéd romance to confound expectations.
The woman of the title is Vera, now a middle-aged schoolteacher who cares for the elderly residents of Mirnoe, a northern village that's been all but abandoned in Brezhnev's Soviet Union. Still beautiful, Vera has become a folk hero among the villagers during her 30-year vigil. "To begin with, there was nothing to distinguish Vera from the millions of other women who had lost their men. Like her they waited, young widows, forsaken lovers. No particular merit in that," says the narrator, a 20-something writer who's supposed to be cataloging Mirnoe's vanishing rituals but who has become fascinated by Vera. "This girl, this Vera, whose faithfulness at first passed unnoticed, later prompted respectful and sympathetic approval, then, as time went by, a mixture of weariness and irritation, the shrugging of shoulders reserved for village idiots; then, later still, indifference, sometimes giving way to the pride local people take in one of the curiosities of the region, a holy relic, a notably picturesque rock. One day, in the end, nothing remained of all that.... [Just] the pointlessness of all judgments, admiring or critical. Only this thought, hazy amid the air's radiance: 'That's how it is.' "
Vera is too strong and too busy, frankly, to fit passively into the preconceived notions of either the writer or the other men who fall in love with her. (The most notable of these is Otar, a foul-mouthed Georgian truck driver who calls himself "the first swallow of capitalism.")
One of the strengths of the novel is the humorous way Makine consistently upends the narrator's idealized version of Vera's life. Both she and her story shrug off stereotypes with an ease that's born of what the narrator calls her goodness.
On his way to help Vera collect an old woman who's the lone holdout in an abandoned village, he acknowledges the futility of trying to pin Vera down to a page. His phrases "failed in the face of the impulsive simplicity with which Vera acted. This led me to the conclusion that good (Good!) is a complex thing ... what looked to others like a good deed was for Vera nothing more than a habit of long standing."
You can't review Makine's books without mentioning nature. He's practically Romantic in his descriptions, and the Russian woods, steppes, and lakes come vividly to life in his books. Certainly, his descriptions of an autumn trip across a lake in a rowboat, a miniature izba (a traditional Russian log cabin), of ice breaking "with the sound of a harpsichord" in a well, stand in lucid quiet compared with the drunken excesses of the dissident literary scene the narrator left behind in 1970s Leningrad.
Following Vera in her cavalry greatcoat on her errands of mercy through forests of larches, it's easy to see why the young man falls in love with her; what's less clear is why Vera would have much patience with his shallow attempts at categorizing and conquering her. (The fact he's one of the few men under 70 in the area still in possession of all his limbs is, however, a point in his favor.)
The soldier who never returned remains a cipher; Makine isn't out to persuade us that his and Vera's love was one for the ages. But even if the men around her don't ultimately amount to much, in Vera, Makine has created a woman well worth waiting for.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.