A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka. Published 2005 by Penguin.
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If all you ever do is read the blurb on the front cover of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, you will never really know what the book is about: "Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade..."
I really question the wisdom of including these, the book's opening lines, on the cover because they are so misleading. Yes, the subject of the book is the doomed relationship between the aforementioned octogenarian and his younger lady. But the metaphor- the "fluffy pink grenade"- makes the story sound like something sweet and adorable that might have Hello Kitty on it. And it really is anything but.
The narrator of the story is Nadezhda, the man's daughter, and she tells the story of her father Nikolai and ladyfriend Valentina; all are immigrants from Ukraine to England, but Nadezhda, her sister Vera and her parents came years ago, and Valentina is fresh off the boat so to speak, an escapee of the post-Soviet Union where she and her husband were comfortable Communists unable to adapt to the capitalist anarchy that ensued after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Leaving her husband behind, Valentina emigrates with her adolescent son in search of a better life, which she expects will be provided to her by a new, wealthy husband, which she expects to find in the frail widower Nikolai. To say she is disappointed is an understatement, and Nadezhda and her sister quickly see through her father's flimsy relations with Valentina and undertake to rid her from the family as little by little Valentina fritters away both Nikolai's money and his sanity.
Coupled with Valentina's and Nikolai's story is that of the family and of their life in Europe and their traumas and secrets, buried for years. Nadezhda, born in Britain, never knew first-hand of her parents' and sister's struggles except through scattershot stories, and learning more becomes critical to repairing her relationship with Vera, fraught for years with envy and resentment which came to a head with their mother's death two years before the story opens. Since that time, the two women have barely spoken and never met, but they find themselves allied over Valentina and slowly rebuilding their bond.
I liked this book a lot. It was very well-written, flowed well and kept me going- it's a short book, around 300 pages, and I picked it to read next because I hoped it would be a quicker, lighter read than Victor Serge's opus on Stalinist Russia, and because I hoped it would be good, since it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. The tone of the book was on the light side but the themes, including family dysfunction, elder abuse, exploitation, the traumas of the Soviet Union, desperation and loneliness, make it pretty grim going at times. It was short, so it didn't last long, but it got to be pretty dark and uncomfortable now and then. Nothing fluffy here except for Valentina's slippers.
In the end though it was a very satisfying read. Nadezhda, Vera and Nikolai were all believable, likable characters and their relationships felt very real- the sibling rivalry played out into adulthood, the way parents sometimes play siblings off against each other, and the way they came together in the end, in a way that was real and not syrupy or contrived. Lewycka also manages to make Valentina more than a fat, pathetic, ill-dressed monster, though maybe not much more. I think I would have liked to see a little more insight into her personality; Nadezhda does admit near the end of the story that while Valentina was certainly "greedy" she was not inhuman, but I have to admit that Lewycka could have provided the reader with a little more evidence. Her character would make a great basis for a book club discussion when taken in with her historical and cultural circumstances. Who knows what anyone would do in her place?
All in all I'd definitely recommend A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian to anyone looking for a solid, literary page-turner about families or about the former Soviet Union. I might even put it alongside books like Monumental Propaganda and Sergei Lukyanenko's vampire trilogy (Night Watch, Day Watch, and Twilight Watch) for those interested in literary reactions to the fall of the Soviet Union. As soon as I have time I'm going to read another book in this vein, Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow; I'll let you know how it goes.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.