Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Our Country Friends’ a tale of one human side of the pandemic

Longtime friends find their bonds tested when they gather to escape the virus at a rural estate.
Gary Shteyngart's new novel is "Our Country Friends." (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)
Gary Shteyngart's new novel is "Our Country Friends." (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)
Published Dec. 9, 2021

In the earliest, disorienting days of the coronavirus pandemic, as New York City became the site of its first American conflagration, many people who could fled the city.

Gary Shteyngart’s engaging new novel, Our Country Friends, is a sometimes comic, sometimes poignant story of one such group. He borrows a bit from Boccaccio, a bundle from Chekhov, but gives the whole thing the same very contemporary satirical stamp he’s brought to books like Super Sad True Love Story and Lake Success. His satire is sharp-eyed, especially on matters of class and race, but tends to be more sympathetic than savage.

Related: Read a review of Gary Shteyngart's "Lake Success."

Sasha Senderovsky, a precariously successful novelist and memoirist, at first sees escape as a short-term lark. He and his wife, Masha, a psychiatrist, and their 8-year-old daughter, Nat, adjourn from their apartment in the city to the House on the Hill, their country estate in the Hudson River Valley.

If you’re looking for autobiographical links, Shteyngart lays them right out: Like Sasha, he’s a Russian immigrant and New Yorker who owns a Craftsman bungalow near the Hudson where he and his family have lived for much of the last two years.

Since the House on the Hill has a convenient gaggle of guest cottages, Sasha invites five people to shelter with them (and Masha correctly assumes she’ll end up doing most of the work). Two, Karen Cho and Vinod Mehta, have been his close friends since high school; Ed Kim joined their tight group a few years later. Dee Cameron is a former student of “Sasha’s drunken car wreck of a writing workshop” who has managed to publish a well-received book. The wild card is a man known only as the Actor.

Most of them are immigrants: Sasha and Masha from Russia, their daughter adopted from China (although Nat’s obsession with K-pop group BTS makes her fantasize she’s really Korean), Karen and Ed are from Korea, Vinod from India. Those immigrant backgrounds have shaped them in various ways. Except for Vinod, an unpublished writer who in his 40s has already lost a lung to cancer, they’re all varying degrees of rich and used to the privilege that brings.

Sasha welcomes them with an extravagant buying spree of expensive drink and exotic food — Ed is a pro-level chef — and at first it seems like one big party. The arrival of the Actor (late, in a red sports car) is electrifying. This is a by-god movie star, and he’s even more stunningly attractive and charismatic in person.

The Actor is there because he’s attached to a possible TV series based on one of Sasha’s books, and the two have been working on the script. Sasha’s financial future hinges on the TV show, but the Actor is blowing hot and cold, and Sasha hopes to win him over.

The really spectacular party trick, though, comes thanks to Karen. She has recently made a fortune selling an app she developed called Troo Emotion. It’s much simpler than a dating app, but when it works can be much more powerful. It takes a photograph of two people looking into each other’s eyes that supposedly reveals their deepest feelings.

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Dee and the Actor agree to give it a whirl.

“’Turn your heads about thirty degrees,’ Karen said from her director’s chair. ‘And then just look into each other’s eyes.’

“’Like we’re in love?’ Dee asked.

“‘That’s the algorithm’s job.’”

The surprising results set off a chain of sexual high jinks among the group. But the party atmosphere can’t last.

The pandemic is still out there, and soon the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd add to the unsettling news. As the summer goes on, political campaigns curdle viciously while the pandemic grows. When Sasha and his guests venture into nearby working-class neighborhoods, they feel hostile stares and worry about a mysterious black pickup truck that keeps turning up.

Inside the compound, new relationships form and old relationships change shape as long-buried secrets are revealed. (Sasha tries to bury one of them in a groundhog’s den.)

And, of course, the virus finds its way in.

Shteyngart has a gift for writing realistically about love and sex in their myriad forms, from the seismic force of new lust to the comfort of a longtime spouse’s touch. In Our Country Friends, though, he focuses his insight on friendships, how they begin, how they endure, how they end.

Our Country Friends cover
Our Country Friends cover [ Random House ]

Our Country Friends

By Gary Shteyngart

Random House, 336 pages, $28