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The Woman Who Waited [Hardcover]

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5.0 out of 5 stars What is love? Aug. 24 2008
By Friederike Knabe TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
"A woman, so intensely destined for happiness' refusing instead to love" characterizes Vera. She's a mysterious, strikingly attractive woman who captures the mind and heart of the young nameless narrator of this delicate, reflective love story that enchants the reader. Since age sixteen, Vera has been waiting faithfully for three decades for her soldier fiancé to return, living alone in an isolated northern Siberian village close to the White Sea. Andrei Makine is a master in exploring characters who survive at the edge of civilization, whether they are exiled political dissidents, ex-convicts, or the local people who belong to this remote harsh world. Here, he shows this at its most intimate level.

The plot itself is simple: a young man and an older woman meet during an important period in their lives and their worlds collide. Representing not only two generations, they also reflect two different visions of love, loyalty, altruism ' life. It is highly relevant that the story unfolds against the remote, stunning landscape of the North, beautifully evoked by the author. There is undoubtedly a certain level of romanticising of the Siberian environment ' childhood home of Andrei Makine ' in his detailed depiction of the forest emerging from the mist, the lake bathed in silvery moonlight, and even the very basic bathhouse that the community shares. It is, as the narrator reflects, a place frozen outside time.

Twenty-six-year-old Leningrad intellectual, jaded by the political environment there (it is the mid-seventies), arrives in Mirnoje to undertake research into the folklore of the North. Vera's life has been filled for many years with serving the community: she is looking after a group of old, abandoned war widows and teaches in primary school.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Her honour is an essence that's not seen March 20 2006
By Leonard Fleisig - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
William Shakespeare, Othello.

Andrei Makine's newest offering is "The Woman Who Waited". It is the story of a man pining for a woman he can never have, a woman living a life of "grievous beauty" waiting senselessly for a man who will never return. As with much of Makine's other works it is an elegiac prose-poem on loss and yearning. Although "The Woman Who Waited" did not have quite the same impact on me as some of Makine's earlier works ("Music of a Life" and "Dreams of My Russian Summers" come to mind) it is, nevertheless, a wonderfully realized piece of writing.

Makine, for those not familiar with his work, was born in the Soviet Union in 1958. He emigrated to France as a young man. He writes in French. (The Woman Who Waited was superbly translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan, Makine's translator of choice). Makine's work for me combines the grace and elegance of the best French writers and the sad dark soul of the best Russian writers.

The unnamed narrator of Woman Who Waited is a cynical 26-year old resident of Leningrad. It is 1975, the midst of the Brezhnev era, and the narrator is part of a circle of artists and writers who chafe under the leaden weight of the regime. They smoke, drink, and scoff at notions of Soviet (and petit bourgeois) morality by adhering to notions of "free love". Random, emotion free couplings are the order of the day.

The narrator takes an opportunity to leave St. Petersburg to research customs and folk lore in the sub-Artic town of Mirnoe. Located close to the White Sea, near Murmansk and Archangelsk, Mirnoe is as close to a ghost town as you are likely to find. It is populated mostly by old ladies, a few old men, and just enough children in the area to support a one-room school house. Upon arrival in Mirnoe the narrator sees Vera. She is 46, self-composed and for the narrator a vision of some ideal version of grace and beauty. The narrator quickly hears that Vera, the local school teacher, said goodbye to her husband in 1945 at the town railway station. Sixteen at the time, Vera last words to her 18-year old husband promised to wait for him to return. Within weeks, during the successful battle for Berlin the husband is reported missing and presumed dead. Despite the virtual certainty of his death Vera has spent the next 30-years waiting chastely for the husband who will never return. As one cynical character, Otar, says to the narrator, Vera may be the only woman in Russia worth loving. The novel moves on from there in the form of the narrator's growing obsession with Vera. The life of Vera is revealed slowly to the reader as the narrator seeks to learn everything he can about her life. Along the way we see that many of his assumptions (and a few of my own) about Vera stand on shaky ground. As the novel nears its end we are treated to a fine example of being careful what we wish for.

Makine's writing is sparse and to the point. He has said repeatedly that he does not write to tell the reader what to think. He writes to tell a story as sparsely and concisely as he can and leave the thinking to the reader. That is one of the great challenges of reading Makine and one of the continuing great pleasures. You have to be actively engaged in the inner life of his characters, Makine does not do that work for you.

As I read The Woman Who Waited it reminded me of Jean Jacque Rousseau's wonderful epistolary novel "Julie or the New Heloise". In that novel the two main characters exchange a series of letters in which feelings conflict with intellect and where passion confronts purity and noble sentiment. The writing is dramatically different but some of the themes of each seem to bear more than a passing resemblance.

Early in the book Makine notes of Vera, as she walked along the shoreline only to stop at the same mailbox she had stopped at every day for thirty years that "what remained was the essence of things". Ultimately, the essence is the dish served by Andrei Makine, one without frills or adornments. I think it clear after reading "The Woman Who Waited" that Makine has provided us with a character in Vera whose honour is an essence that is seen.

This is yet another book by Andre Makine that deserves a wide audience.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What is love? Aug. 22 2008
By Friederike Knabe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"A woman, so intensely destined for happiness... refusing instead to love" characterizes Vera. She's a mysterious, strikingly attractive woman who captures the mind and heart of the young nameless narrator of this delicate, reflective love story that enchants the reader. Since age sixteen, Vera has been waiting faithfully for three decades for her soldier fiancé to return, living alone in an isolated northern Siberian village close to the White Sea. Andrei Makine is a master in exploring characters who survive at the edge of civilization, whether they are exiled political dissidents, ex-convicts, or the local people who belong to this remote harsh world. Here, he shows this at its most intimate level.

The plot itself is simple: a young man and an older woman meet during an important period in their lives and their worlds collide. Representing not only two generations, they also reflect two different visions of love, loyalty, altruism - life. It is highly relevant that the story unfolds against the remote, stunning landscape of the North, beautifully evoked by the author. There is undoubtedly a certain level of romanticizing of the Siberian environment - childhood home of Andrei Makine - in his detailed depiction of the forest emerging from the mist, the lake bathed in silvery moonlight, and even the very basic bathhouse that the community shares. It is, as the narrator reflects, a place frozen outside time.

Twenty-six-year-old Leningrad intellectual, jaded by the political environment there (it is the mid nineteen seventies and oblique references to Soviet reality seep into the story), arrives in Mirnoje to undertake research into the folklore of the North. Vera's life has been filled for many years with serving the community: she is looking after a group of old, abandoned war widows and teaches in primary school. From the first moment, the narrator glimpses the tall striking silhouette, clad in a long army coat, he is intrigued. Increasingly, though, his intellectual curiosity turns into something more. As he invents reasons to stay close, talk to her, and takes to following her in her daily routines, physical infatuation takes over that he finds difficult to control. Vera, old enough to be his mother, fully aware of the young man's desires, responds calmly, gently, yet remains aloof and mysterious. Keeping a diary of his evolving image of her, he rationalized her motives for the monastic life she leads, trying to capture the essence of her being. More than once, though, he has to revise his interpretation of who Vera is and what kind of love had made her wait for a man she hardly knew. Is it possible for the narrator, and by extension the reader, to conceive of such love and relate to it?

Makine's telling of the story, in slow motion, is achingly beautiful. It has to be savoured sentence by sentence, not rushed through. Having read the original French, which is, as always, exquisite, I cannot comment on the English translation. However, having read other Makine work in translation, I have been impressed with Geoffrey Strachan's particular talent to convey and transpose the delicate nuances in the fluid and poetic language that is the hallmark of Makine's French. [Friederike Knabe]
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Are Men drawn to Culture and Women to Nature? Sept. 21 2012
By P. A. Doornbos - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In Andreï Makine's breakthrough third novel "Once upon the River Love", a lonely woman plays a cameo role. Each year since WW II when a river thawed deep inside Eastern Siberia, she awaited the arrival of the ferry, hoping her fiancé would step off and finally come home. She was considered crazy. But the old ferryman tells the narrator, then 15, that he saw her fiancé a year ago, in 1972 in the district capital, married with three children, rich and fat. "He just forgot about her". As a war hero he fell for someone else, just 30 km away from home. And no one ever told her...
The fate of its WW II soldiers has long been anathema in SU history and literature. Ten million died, countless others were maimed for life or sent to work camps because they had surrendered. Those who came home unscathed could find his fiancé or wife locked in another man's embrace. Does history not repeat itself over millennia?

AM revives the theme of the waiting woman in this great novel. It is written from a m/f perspective and introduces Vera, rumoured to have been waiting for the return of her first love for 30 years: him 18, drafted in 1945 into a war that was almost won when she was 16. She is discovered in the summer and autumn of 1975 by a blasé, semi-dissident graduate of Leningrad University, hired to write a chapter on the dying folklore of her depopulated area near the White Sea in NW Russia for a planned jubilee book.
The nameless narrator (26) is a little disgusted with alternative urban lifestyles and has an open mind for what meets his eye: dying villages, no working economy, an ever-changing and harsher autumn climate, another secretive posse of blasé `dissidents', but most of all, Vera, now 47 and still stunningly beautiful, and an enigmatic and charismatic person. He becomes intrigued, then infatuated with her. Readers (m/f) have to follow his obsession without this reviewer's further guidance.
Great, short novel for reading groups, because lots of issues emerge about relations between males and females and about what in a person's or country's life is considered nature or culture. Rich novel with a satisfying ending. Highly recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life Beyond the Wigwam May 30 2009
By Craobh Rua - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Andrei Makine was born in Siberia in 1957, but has lived in Paris since 1987. He writes in French, rather than in Russian, and won both the Prix Medicis and the Prix Goncourt for "Le Testament Francais".

"The Woman Who Waited" looks back to the mid-1970s, and is set (mostly) in a Siberian village called Mirnoe. At the time, our narrator was a young writer in Leningrad, someone who viewed himself both a dissident and intellectual...although he was probably a little more pretentious and selfish than he cared to admit. Nevertheless, he was apparently starting to doubt his intellectual ways. He regularly met with his equals in a rundown studio known as the Wigwam, and the aftermath of one party led directly to his time in Mirnoe. (The party had an American journalist as its guest of honour, starred an awful poet reciting an awful poem and featured plenty of recreational sex with a number of different partners. Everyone was desperately trying to impress the American with just how western they all were, and our hero's girlfriend proving to be distressingly active. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his commitment to dissident literature began to wane a little that night).

One of the other revellers at the same party was Arkady Gorin - a poet who was off to Israel the next morning, after 6 years of being refused a visa. Arkady had been due to spend some time in Mirnoe to write a few reports on "local habits and customs". (He suggests the trip to our narrator - figuring it'll help pass the time, also noting that there should be plenty of great material for anti-Soviet satire). However, our storyteller soon discovers he'd have been better able to write these reports sitting in a nice warm library and that life in the village doesn't lend itself to satire. Life in Mirnoe is very difficult : the old ways - and the village itself - are dying out, for want of a younger generation to preserve them. The stories of the Second World War still cast a long shadow over those who remain...none more so than Vera, who has spent thirty years waiting on her lover to return from the front.

There's a real sense that many years have passed on the book's events, and that the storyteller is looking back on his time in Mirnoe as an older, wiser man. Occasionally, he refers to the notes he wrote at the time ...almost with an air of "what WAS I thinking". It appeared, to me at least, that when he was still young he was nearly desperate to appear profound....to the point where Vera's story was almost secondary to his own skill. In contrast, his voice now - the one he uses to tell the story - seems a little more down to earth and much more capable of portraying the places and the people. A lovely book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poetic & Evocative Feb. 15 2009
By Mark Stevens - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As other reviews have pointed out, "The Woman Who Waited" is extremely lyrical. Each word seems to have been carefully selected. The mood is dream-like and dense. The writing carried echoes of Joseph Conrad's novellas or longer short stories. Look elsewhere if you want something light and breezy.

"The Woman Who Waited" is about a mysterious (at least through the eyes of our narrator / guide) woman in the Russian village of Mirnoe who is still waiting, decades later, for her fiancé to return from War World II. The narrator is a young researcher who becomes transfixed with the woman, Vera, and her environment. "The bald reality of it was clear to me, too, in the obscenely simple manner of this life's devastation, the unspeakable banality of the years that had gone to make up that thirty-year monolith. For to begin with, when peace returned, there was nothing to distinguish Vera from the millions of other women who had lost their men." There's a "hideous logic," the narrator decides, to the fact that so many women waited--because there was such a shortage of men left, due to the war. Vera's stubbornness was seen by the town, writes the narrator, as "one of the curiosities of the region, a holy relic, a notably picturesque rock."

Makine evokes the harsh mood of the villages and terrain around the White Sea. He keeps his distance from letting readers deep inside the narrator's character. There is precious little about his background or his motivations. The reader is left in a kind of poetic fog, looking for shapes to emerge and reveal themselves.

The narrator and Vera circle around each other, interact and become intertwined on many levels. The narrator adjusts assumptions about his interpretation of Vera's life and fascination turns to infatuation. The style is interesting (written by a Russian-born writer in French and then translated to English) and the characters memorable. "The Woman Who Waited" is about the familiar topics of love and loss through a sharp, poetic lens.
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