Ryashski dedicates his novel to "love in all its variations": from sacrifice in the name of love to forbidden love, from erotic love to the love of a son for his mother. The names of all four women in the life of Lev Kazarnovski-Durnovo are some variant of the Russian name "Lyubov," which means love. His mother is addressed respectfully by her first name and patronymic as Lyubov Lvovna. His first wife is addressed with the very familiar diminutive form of "Lyubasha." His second wife is addressed with the less playful variant of "Lyuba," and her daughter from her first marriage is "Little Lyuba."
There was never a question in his mother's mind that her Lev was destined to become a great writer or playwright, not only be she herself was descended from the old and respected Durnovo family line, but also because her husband Ilya was a famous playwright who had been awarded a Lenin Prize for his work, even though he was only known for one play which had been staged in theaters all over the Soviet Union for more than three decades. The family has a grand apartment in Moscow and spends the months of May to October in a well-appointed Dacha (summer house), equipped with a telephone and hot and cold running water in a village for writers and the Party elite. With the passage of time, Lyubov Lvovna has forgotten that her family's welfare is based on a stolen story.
Ilya was a war correspondent in Leningrad during the blockade. In the winter of 1943, he and a number of others were evacuated across the frozen Lake Ladoga under heavy bombardment. Ilya had told his story to his perpetually drunken friend Goryunov, who turned the story into a play, which he swapped to Ilya in exchange for dinner at a chic restaurant. As time went by, the story grew into a myth. The unobtrusive war correspondent was turned into a hero, who had saved the lives of a number of people during the evacuation, and the case of pneumonia that he had then had turned into a bullet wound in the lungs. It is only when Glotov moves into the Dacha next door that Lyubov Lvovna becomes uncomfortable. Her new neighbor was one of those evacuated from Leningrad in 1943, and is insistent that he get to meet the man who shared his fate back then, Ilya. It was a lucky thing that Ilya died soon after Glotov moved in.
It is only because he loves his mother that Lev sits at his desk every day, publishing a small piece here and there, even though he knows that he does not have any talent. Lyubov Lvovna turns the lives of the women in Lev's life into Hell with her carping and lecturing. She calls her daughter-in-law "the gray mouse," and thinks that she is not worthy of the lineage of Durnovo because she is working her way through college by rinsing out retorts in the chemistry lab. Lyuba, an art historian, manages to avoid any conflict with her mother-in-law, who is convinced that this calculating "beast" is only waiting for her to die so that she can get her inheritance. And so Lyubov Lvovna develops a complicated endless scheme of new hiding places for the tin box with her diamonds, the ones that she spent two decades worth of her husband's royalties on.
Actually, Lev should hate his mother, but when he was a little boy, he decided that he had to love her, simply because she was his mother. A number of years of his life are spent in trying to create at least a superficial harmony between his four "loves". He feels responsible for his ex-wife Lyubasha and for Lyuba's father Henrik, an artist with a fondness for vodka, who earns his keep by forging documents. And even though nothing will come of his idea to bring two lonely hearts together, both of them remain welcome friends in the family's Moscow apartment and in their Dacha. The obsequious Lyubasha makes friends with Lyuba and becomes more and more a sort of housekeeper for the family. To everybody's amazement, the easy-going Henrik makes friends with the testy old lady. Lyubov Lvovna can spend hours talking with him in her room. She laughs heartily at his jokes. He is the only one for whom she will bake the traditional family dessert, a Napoleon Cake. And she is dreadfully concerned when Henrik lands in jail. This special kind of love reminds Lev of the affection that his mother had to the cat Murzilka that his father had once found on the street. The cat grew into a rather hateful and wild animal that the whole family was afraid of, but Murzilka adored her owner, who was the only one who would cook chicken sausages for it.
But what can Lev—who is surrounded by it—know about love, because all he can see are his own frightening bottomless pits. Once by accident he sees the thirteen-year-old Lyuba naked as she hurries from the shower to her room, and he suddenly realizes that she is an attractive young woman.
The reader only gets to see this later in cunningly constructed flashbacks. Ryashski introduces the reader to the Kazarnovski family in a dark hour, when Lyuba learns that she has untreatable breast cancer. The leading Moscow oncologist Goryunov, the son of the real author of the famous play, and a friend of the family, has Lyuba admitted to his clinic. Lyubov Lvovna is worried about her diamonds, and asks Henrik to look after the legendary tin box with the diamonds that no one in the family has ever seen. Henrik carelessly throws the box down in his studio somewhere, shortly after which he is arrested again. Without actually presenting them in court, the police use the confiscated diamonds as evidence of the huge amounts of money that he has earned as a forger.
Then Lyubov Lvovna suffers a stroke. She can't get out of bed anymore and only lives in the past: her husband, Lake Ladoga, the play … Lev's life is torn between his mother and his wife. Lyuba makes him promise that after she's dead, he'll marry the good, warm-hearted Lyubasha. Why does he need love when he's got that? As if that wasn't enough, little Lyuba comes to his bed in a see-through nightie and asks him not to marry Lyubasha: "Why do we need a stranger? I've noticed the way you look at me for a long time." And when Lev, who can hardly believe his luck, starts to embrace her, she cries "How can you be so unfaithful? She's not even dead and buried yet, and you're ready to sleep with me!"
Little Lyuba knows full well that grandmother can hear everything, because she reversed the direction of the walkie-talkie connection to the sick room. Lev cannot hear her cries for help. The next morning, Lev finds his mother dead in her bed, and suffers a heart attack himself.
Lev is paralyzed. He cannot speak any more and now he belongs to Lyubasha completely. Each evening she takes him out onto the terrace in a wheelchair so that he won't miss his beloved "blue hour" of sunset. One of these evenings Lyuba comes in with shattering news: She's going to live. The cancer diagnosis was a mistake. But the news hardly sinks in to Lev.
In the Epilogue the reader learns that Lyuba is living together with Dr. Goryunov in the Kazarnovski's Moscow apartment, and that Lyubasha and Lev have moved into Goryunov's small apartment. Little Lyuba has married Glotov, the son of the Dacha neighbors, and they have a son, whom she names Lev, Lev Karsarnovski-Durnovo. And every year, from May to October, all of them, bound by love and hate, get together at the Dacha, like a real family.
Olma Press, Moscow, 2003, ca. 160 pages