Varvara Dobroselova and Makar Devushkin are second cousins twice-removed and live across from each other on the same street in terrible apartments. The novel follows their lives, their relationship with rich people, and poverty in general. A deep but odd friendship develops between them until Dobroselova loses her interest in literature, and later in communicating with Devushkin after a rich widower Mr. Bykov proposes to her.
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