About A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka: Sisters Vera and Nadezhda must put aside feuding to save their engineer father from gold-digger Valentina. With her proclivity for satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, she will stop at nothing in her pursuit of wealth. But the sisters' campaign to oust Valentina unearths secrets and sends them back to roots they'd much rather forget.
My thoughtsThe book in one sentence: An old man, a Ukrainian immigrant, wreaks havoc on family life when he marries a much, much younger gold digger.
I was trolling Oprah and decided to read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainianbecause I saw it was one of Vera Farmiga's memorable reads. She relates because she is the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrants. (Vera is the fantastic actress in Up in the Air, The Departed and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The first few sentences, which also happen to be on the front cover, sets the mood:
Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.Reading this will make you alternately laugh and cry (or cringe). Hilarious and tragic, the story is told from the viewpoint of Nadezhda (Nadia), the younger daughter. When their father Nikolai goes a'courting and eventually remarries, Nadia and her sister Vera have no choice but to join forces against the wicked witch Valentina - Valentina of the big boobs paid for by their father, and her supposed savant son who is to be Oxford educated, again to be paid for by their father.
Immigrant life is difficult. We are given a peek into their lives of poverty and hardship when their mother was still alive. And the ruthlessness by which Valentina is portrayed drives home this very point, to the dismay of Nadia and Vera. At every turn, Valentina outsmarts the two sisters with getting her "needs" met by their father's fast dwindling savings and pension - be it a car (or two), or a modern oven. This common adversary draws the two sisters closer, and they learn that their lives are not as simple as they believed it to be, as old rivalries and family histories come to fore.
Your heart will go out to our octogenarian hero, who in his second childhood, only wants to be love and be loved (ok, he is unabashedly lecherous). He revisits his life, and his roots, and the product is a history or treatise about tractors written in Ukrainian. Read between the lines and it is a love story of his beloved Ukraine.
This is a beautiful story, which will resonate with immigrants Ukrainian or not. It urges you to look back on your own family history, family dynamics, and the legacies that your family leaves you. And while there is comic relief because of the sheer outrageousness of some events, it is actually a very real and even painful probe of life. Everyone's family has its own secrets, and the wonderful thing about it is that we are the product of it!
Verdict: A must-read - entertaining yet enlightening. I'm glad this one was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.