Although the novel’s early pages promise the revelation of family secrets, and the narrative delivers, it is primarily concerned with evoking people’s quotidian joys and sorrows. The story sojourns through the realms of music, science, and politics as Ulitskaya gives full rein to her characters’ thoughts—particularly Jacob’s, with his great thirst for knowledge—but the plot remains strong. Ideal for devotees of Russian literature and epic tales.
... Jacob’s Ladder...shows how Ulitskaya continues the tradition of prerevolutionary Russian literature and demonstrates why she’s one of the most popular novelists in today’s Russia. Yet, as with real letters, much of the material can be rather mundane, and while wading through it I often wondered whether she hadn’t gotten carried away with all this spinning of documentary threads. In one letter, Jacob writes that an argument Maria makes is 'incoherent and puzzling,' and the same could often be said of the novel. Sometimes, though, Ulitskaya’s lines jump out and resonate, sharpening the reader’s vague impressions ... Jacob’s Ladder dramatizes this Russian concept of sudba, the understanding of fate as a kind of prison we can never escape. But at a subtler level, it’s about the essence of life itself, particularly the essence of our ancestors that’s manifested through us.
In the tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Ulitskaya’s complicated work covers a century of Russian history, politics, economics, culture, and music, which can be overwhelming. But there is something mesmerizing about the narrative’s scale, and patterns emerge: the little control humans have over their lives; the impact of political forces on individuals; the certainty of death, somehow softened by the promise of new birth. This is a challenging yet rewarding epic.