Valeria's Last Stand, by Marc Fitten. Published 2009 by Bloomsbury/Macmillan. Literary Fiction.
Valeria's Last Stand is a modern-day folk tale about love, aging and dealing with a changing world. Set in post-Soviet Hungary, the story follows a love triangle between crotchety, elderly Valeria, tough-necked bar owner Ibolya and the potter they both love. In folk-tale fashion, he (and almost all of the male characters, for that matter) is known only by his trade, never by his name. When the story opens, the potter and Ibolya are in the midst of a casual affair, ruptured forever one day when he falls for Valeria out of the blue. Their whole town is thrown into an uproar watching with disbelief as the two women become rivals, and a newcomer is thrown into this volatile mix.
All of this drama takes place as the country is transformed with the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union, and an important theme in the novel is this idea of transition and upheaval. These themes are alluded to directly in the person of the town's mayor, sporting a newly-minted devotion to capitalism and a very modern trophy wife. When it comes to the central narrative, the thing which surprises the gossips and onlookers is the vitality of the aging protagonists' sexuality but what surprised me is the strength of their rancor. Ibolya simply cannot accept that the potter has transferred his affections onto a woman she considers ugly and unworthy, while Valeria herself is not even sure she wants him. Meanwhile, he dithers between the two as tensions mount. Then, when Ibolya recruits the amoral chimney-sweep to distract Valeria, the conflagration ignites out of control.
Overall I found Valeria's Last Stand to be lively and entertaining. The pages keep turning even as the story darkens towards the end; it reads quickly and fluidly, but one wonders if the simple folk tale style conceals some hidden depths. At the same time, I enjoyed the blend of simple narration, iconic characters and an ending in which the good guys get to be happy and the bad guys get their comeuppance. I think it would appeal to lots of different readers and marks a fine entry into the growing canon of post-Soviet dark comedies, such as Marina Lewycka's excellent A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian. The characters weren't always appealing and the story took some twists and turns I didn't expect but in the end I thought it was a satisfying, if bittersweet, story of a world in flux and finding love where you least expect it.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.