Josh Weil’s new novel, (available July 2) is set in an alternate version of present-day Russia, but its sprawling length and breadth, pacing and focus are evocative of Russian classics like Anna Karenina. Like, Anna Karenina, and so many others, The Great Glass Sea is chiefly concerned with love, however, unlike Tolstoy’s doomed heroine the twin brothers at the center of the book––Dima and Yarik––struggle not with forbidden love, but with familial love, and how that love plays into social expectations and responsibilities and their increasingly at-odds worldviews.
Inseparable as children, and well into their adulthood, having long spent day in and day out toiling side-by-side at any job that would have them both, Dima and Yarik find their bond strained when a chance run-in with the billionaire owner of the Oranzheria (a.k.a. the great glass sea)––a vast greenhouse built with pivotable mirrors up high enough to reflect the light of the sun, keeping everything in its path light when it should be dark––sees family man Yarik unknowingly put on the path of upward mobility and Dima shunted to the night shift. Yarik, the elder brother, though only by minutes, nonetheless embodies the traditional older brother with the weight of responsibility and expectations on his shoulders. He has a wife he loves, and two children, and though he loves his brother, he works for his family, for their happiness. Dima, by contrast, shares an apartment with their elderly mother, tending to her and her failing health, but dreams only of spending more time with his brother and works only with the single-minded vision of saving half of the scratch needed to buy his deceased uncle’s old farm––Yarik, he believes shares this dream and is dutifully saving as well, so that they might return to that simple life of their childhood.
When Dima quits his job––an unthinkable act in the new Russia where weekends have ceased to exist and there is only work––even as Yarik is promoted to foreman, the brothers are ripped farther apart than ever before. They hurtle down these opposite paths, each becoming a symbol for highly contrasting ideologies and movements.
What follows over the course of the novel’s near 500 pages is an ambitious analysis of the fallout of that one single moment, how the drive to work and amass impacts our happiness, and conversely how listlessness or a lack of ambition do the same. Weil spends plenty of time in Yarik and Dima’s heads as they both relive the past and struggle to come to terms with their present, in terms of both desire and reality. Though doing so affords strong character insights, it’s also true that much of the same ground and same emotions recur time and again. The emphasis on character is the mark of an intellectual, analytical storyteller, but with a bit less time spent retreading inside Yarik and Dima’s heads, the tale would feel more fleet-footed, but no less clever or well-thought out.
Again, not unlike Anna Karenina or other sprawling tales in the classic literary canon, The Great Glass Sea is a joy to reflect on once completed. The whole is greater than its parts in the truest sense of the phrase, reading through The Great Glass Sea can be a bit of a slog at times, but upon completion there is a decided sense of having reached the end of a journey, and the appreciation for the effort and the details wells up more freely once distanced from them. Josh Weil proves himself a storyteller with the ability to deliver the kind of complex literature (with room for interpretation that lends itself to discussion and debate) in a time where fast, easy and digestible are far more common place. The Great Glass Sea will likely not prove to be his crowning masterpiece, but it certainly makes the case that Weil has stories a plenty to deliver and a style that will only sharpen over time.
Title: The Great Glass Sea
Author: Josh Weil
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Grove Press
Publish Date: July 2, 2014