Lady of the Snakes
About the book:
Jane Levitsky is a bright light in the field of nineteenth-century Russian literature, making her name as an expert on the novels of Grigory Karkov and the diaries of his wife, the long-suffering Masha Karkova. Jane is also wife to sweet, reasonable Billy and mother to lovable (if demanding) Maisie, roles she’s finding surprisingly challenging to juggle along with her ambitions. But when Jane uncovers evidence that Masha may have been more than muse and helpmeet to her famous husband, she seizes her ticket to academic superstardom. Little does she know that she has set in motion a chain of events that will come perilously close to unraveling both her marriage and her career. Lady of the Snakes will be instantly familiar—and instantly unforgettable—to anyone who has ever felt torn between two worlds.
About the author:
RACHEL PASTAN is the author of This Side of Married. Her short fiction has earned a number of awards, including a PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize. She lives with her family in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Swarthmore College and the Bennington Writing Seminars.
Click here to download the reading guide for Lady of the Snakes.
1. What does the opening of the novel tell you about Jane and her relationship to literature, particularly the work of the Karkovs?
2. Jane’s graduate adviser, Professor Shombauer, tells her on page 7, “You can’t serve two masters. It’s not possible!” Given how the novel progresses, do you think she is right? How are Jane’s home and work life at war for her heart and attention?
3. How do things change for Jane and Billy once they have Maisie? In what ways does Jane compare her role as a wife and mother with Masha’s?
4. On page 24, Billy asks Jane, “Everything you feel, did Maria Petrovna feel it first?” What is he implying? How does this comment reflect his feelings about Jane’s work?
5. As an academic, Jane’s job is to analyze literary works, to study events and symbols, probing them for meaning. How does she apply these skills to her own life? What does she overlook, despite her typically careful scrutiny?
6. Jane is shocked to discover that her former mentor has given up her career to be a stay-at-home mother. How does seeing Helen in her new life affect Jane’s perspective of her own? Do you think Jane and Helen are essentially different types of women, as Jane begins to believe?
7. Compare Jane and her student Felicia—how are they similar? How are they different? On page 58, Jane wonders who Masha would be more like if she lived in the present time—Jane or Felicia. What do you think, and why?
8. Snakes appear throughout Pastan’s novel. What do you think their significance is?
9. Masha Karkova wrote, “What happens between men and women changes everything, and yet it changes nothing. We remain two separate kinds, unknowable to each other, gazing at one another with suspicion and longing.” Do you think the events of the novel support this observation? Why or why not?
10. There are many models of womanhood offered by Lady of the Snakes. Discuss how the various women in the novel—Jane, Professor Shombauer, Helen, Felicia, Susannah Olen, and Masha—choose to express their identity. How are their lives influenced or not influenced by men?
11. Similarly, the male characters in the novel offer various models of manhood. Consider how Billy, Grisha, Otto, Paul, and Greg Olen each perform their duties as husbands, fathers, and privileged members of what some call a “man’s world.” How are they similar? How are they different?