Review: “Our Country Friends” by Gary Shteyngart

Intense, funny and charged with the nervous fear of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gary Shteyngart’s “Our Country Friends” blends a classic “country estate” novel with our all-to-familiar dystopian present.

As the novel begins, writer Sasha Senderovsky (a bit of a Shteyngart fill-in) invites a group of old friends to stay at the country house he shares with his therapist wife and their adopted daughter. There’s a main house and a series of little bungalows, surrounded by dying trees and sharing creaky plumbing, problems that Sasha doesn’t have the money to fix.

Our host is past his prime earning potential and hoping for a TV script to come through. This long-delayed project brings a bonus guest to the estate: a famous actor, unnamed, who is developing the script with Sasha. This partnership leaves Sasha beholden to the actor’s good will, even as the confined star stirs up the already tense “pandemic meets ‘Trump-country'” environment.

Sasha and his friend are decidedly not Trumpers. They are mostly immigrants, high school friends from New York City who’ve seen a range of success. A failed adjunct professor/grease monkey at his uncle’s restaurant is still hung up on his high school crush, who’s recently hit it big as the tech guru behind the “Tröö Emotions” app. There’s also a trust fund bon vivant and a former student of Sasha’s who grew up poor, rural and white and isn’t above stirring up culture-war resentments for publicity.

It’s a good cast, each distinct, prickly and lovable at the same time. They drink too much and fall into cliques (as well as in and out of one another’s beds). They tend toward the libertine, with outdoor sex and plenty of skinny dipping in the pool.

They also occupy an elevated social class, even if some of them, like Sasha, are doing so on credit. (He winces at a four-figure liquor tab but still signs the check.) Indeed, one of the book’s rare missteps is when Sasha’s student, Dee, obliviously reveals just how well-padded her bank account is. It’s an unlikely gaffe for someone who is supposed to have grown up counting every penny.

There are plot engines–an app that bewitches one of the guests, a social media scandal, a black truck that periodically sits outside the gates. And there’s the great ghost of COVID looming over everything, haunting our guests as they seek refuge from the dirty world outside.

Shteyngart captures the uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic, the hollow gestures of hygiene theater, the understandable paranoia and the countervailing desire to get drunk and hug your oldest friends around the neck. That said, “Our Country Friends” transcends the pandemic, addressing larger issues of friendship and success, betrayal and heartbreak. I thought it lingered too long in its final fadeout (like COVID itself, I suppose), but it was still a warm and rewarding read.


“At their lower moments, they always overcame their parents’ programming, always offered each other more than they had ever been given.”


“She remembered the little fishes her father had used to bait the sea bass of Long Island Sound, the way they used to thrash on the hook, unsuitable for anything but dying between the teeth of a more important animal.”


“People were dying in the city. Some more than others. The virus had roamed the earth but had chosen to settle down there, just as the parents of Masha, Senderovsky, Karen, and Vinod had chosen it four decades ago as a place to escape the nighttime reverberations of Stalin and Hitler, of partition, of the pain that radiated not to distant memory but cracked outright from their own fathers’ hands.”


“Senderovsky watched his wife in the sundress return to her patients and her child’s lesson plans and thought of the raft of mystery that floats between two partners, even contented ones, as they turn in for the night. He wished he could fall in love with someone as his wife evidently had done. He had chased after beauty for such a long part of his life, until he had caught up with it and found it, like everything else, worthy of no more than a chapter or two of heightened prose.”