A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
12 January 2013 Leave a comment
Author: Marina Lewycka.
Summary: Sisters Vera and Nadezhda must put aside a lifetime of feuding to save their émigré engineer father from voluptuous gold-digger Valentina. With her proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, she will stop at nothing in her pursuit of Western wealth.
But the sisters’ campaign to oust Valentina unearths family secrets, uncovers fifty years of Europe’s darkest history and sends them back to roots they’d much rather forget…
Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5
Review: I got hold of this book through Book Crossing. I was drawn to it because of the quirky art and seemingly-random title. And… it was pretty funny. Nikolai is an 84-year-old widow who marries Valentina to help her acquire a British visa, and he gets much more than he bargained for. Nikolai is a hilarious character and was pretty much solely responsible for the moments i laughed out loud.
Every single character had something for me to dislike about them. Nadia was too weak, Vera was too selfish, Nikolai was sexist and delusional, Valentina was selfish and deluded and her son Stanislav was a smug little bastard. All the bit-part men too easily fell for Valentina’s charms [read: breasts].
I actually had to skip over the sections where Nikolai read out passages from his book. The book, of course, from which this book takes its title. I’m sorry, but the actual plot has nothing to do with tractors. I had been plunged head first into a plot about an unhappy marriage of convenience and the efforts of those involved to either thwart it or ensure its success. I do not then suddenly want a page and a half about the history of tractors. The history of the main family in the book is also described in far too much detail at points throughout the book. Details of Vera and Nadia’s grandparents and aunts and uncles and… it isn’t an exciting or relevant enough history to have kept me entertained; it just seemed unnecessary.
Following on from that, the summary promises that the book “unearths family secrets” and i was readying myself for a huge revelation that would either tear the family apart for good, or shock them enough into a true reconciliation. I was sorely disappointed. Turned out the big family secret was that three of the four family members had experienced a difficult time, and the fourth family member didn’t seem to grasp that fact for over 300 pages. That revelation was
kind of a bore for me.
I’ve said a lot of negative things so far, which leads to the question, why three stars? Well, as well as being rather funny, the actual plot of the book kept my attention, and got me invested. As much as these people annoyed me, i cared about them. I was desperate to see Nikolai freed from Valentina’s manipulative, demanding and bullying claws. As much as i didn’t want to see Valentina imprisoned or deported, i wanted her to stop being a bitch and leave Nikolai alone. As much as i disliked Nadia and Vera, i wanted them to drop everything and do whatever it took to help their father. And as amicable as it all ended, i was worryingly angry that they let Valentina take the ugly and expensive gas cooker with her when she left.
So yes, i enjoyed and got involved in the story… and yet. Even that managed to frustrate me. As soon as the power imbalance between Nikolai and Valentina became obvious, my first thought was that they should wait until she was out of the house and then change the locks. No. Okay, maybe that’s too extreme. So, when Nikolai plucks up the courage to file for divorce… time to change the locks? No. Fine, you want to wait until she’s officially moved out. So, a court order is obtained to get Valentina out of the house. Surely they’ve changed the locks? No. She’s still swanning in and out whenever she likes, photocopying her soon-to-be ex-husband’s letters. I was internally raging! How can these people be so short sighted?
I think my favourite part of this book was Nikolai’s English. It was perfectly understandable and simple, yet wonderfully staightforward, literal and descriptive.
“I performed involuntary excretion in my trousers.” He said it as though his bowels were not a part of him but a discrete force of nature.
Also, any book that ends with an 84-year-old naked man doing yoga gets kudos from me.
The skin of his shrunken buttocks hangs loose, pearly white, almost translucent.