Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Maria Lewycka
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: recommended by a friend; German author for Orbis Terrarum Challenge; New-to-Me Author for Triple 8 Challenge

Summary (from Booklist): "Vera and Nadezhda have not spoken to one another since their mother's funeral two years ago. But the news that their eccentric 83-year-old father, Nikolai, wants to marry a 36-year-old woman from Ukraine so that she can stay in England causes them to work past their differences to save the old man from himself. Despite their efforts, Valentina moves in with Nikolai and begins to demand the good life the West is supposed to provide her, from a "civilized person's Hoover" and a "not-peasant-cooking" stove to a Rolls-Royce. As Valentina's demands become more ridiculous, the sisters band closer together to get her out, while Nikolai begins his laborious work on the history of the tractor and its effect on society. While the sisters and Valentina spar, Nadezhda struggles to put together the pieces of her family's past in Ukraine and Germany during World War II."

First line: "Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee."

My thoughts: The last line of this book's review in Publishers Weekly is ""I had thought this story was going to be a knockabout farce, but now I see it is developing into a knockabout tragedy," Nadezhda says at one point, and though she is referring to Valentina, she might also be describing this unusual and poignant novel." And that really sums the book up. And I think that was the problem, I didn't want a tragedy. There are some really funny parts, I think it would probably make a great movie. Valentina's pidgin English and heaving bosom make for some great laughs. And the saga of how Nikolai buys her not one but 3 cars is hilarious (one of them earns the name Crap car). Perhaps if I'd listened to it on tape, as the friend who recommended it had, I'd have gotten more out of it, rather than struggling with the Ukrainian names and words. But the pathetic father, the feuding sisters, the scheming and often cruel Valentina and the sad family secrets...it was too much for me at times. I often found it very sad.

And, I have to say, the long passages from the tractor treatise were pretty boring. (Funny aside, I told my dad the name of the book and he, clearly not thinking much of Communist engineering, said, "What is that? They make them and then never repair them?") There were a couple of parts where it mirrored what was happening in the book and a few that were amusing, but overall, I skimmed over them.

As an aside for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, it clearly reflects the author's heritage, both her Ukrainian background and her current life in England.

So...I have a feeling maybe this was the wrong book at the wrong time for me. I was reading On Beauty at the same time and it also features a totally self-centred father, so I was a bit OD'd on that aspect. But it definitely has some funny moments. If you're an audio book fan, I'd suggest maybe checking it out that way. Or just make sure you're in the mood for some tragedy with your comedy.


Katherine said...

I had the same kind of problems with this book--it was billed as comedy, so that's what I was expecting, but we got something different. Still, there were a number of things that I liked about it. It was bittersweet, in a way, even though I couldn't stand the father for being so clueless.

tinylittlelibrarian said...

I'm glad you couldn't stand him, too! That was my main problem with the book. I did like some parts of it, but that just really stood out so much for me that it was hard to enjoy the rest.