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An unexpectedly perceptive view of family dynamics and the aging process

  • Nov 24, 2008
Rating:
+3
This book starts with a broadly comic familiar premise (86-year old, recently widowed, Ukrainian emigre Nikolai marries a blond gold-digger 50 years his junior, to the horror of his two daughters) and you can't help wondering if you've signed up for a predictable romp, maybe spiced up with some Ukrainian local color. Fortunately, Marina Lewycka has something more interesting in store than low comedy and lazy stereotypes and the story that unfolds is more nuanced than its initial premise would suggest, while still managing to be quite funny.

Although Valentina, the blonde with the boobjob, is indeed a gold-digger, Lewycka is smart enough not to demonize her altogether. Furthermore, Vera and Nadezhda, Nikolai's adult daughters, are no saints either - they have issues of their own and as the story unfolds it's a tossup as to whose behavior is more reprehensible. The marriage of Nikolai and Valentina sours once money runs low, and Vera and Nadezhda must put their own differences aside to look out for their father's welfare as relations between him and Valentina careen from bad to worse. Against this background Lewycka also weaves in the story of Nikolai's early life in the Ukraine. The result is a surprisingly moving account of a family's dealing with a parent who refuses to grow old gracefully.

This book reminded me strongly of Mark Haddon's second book, "A Spot of Bother" - it has the same kind of sprawling plot, idiosyncratic and exasperating characters, and is highly readable. A memorable first novel.

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More A Short History of Tractors in... reviews
review by . June 20, 2013
I couldn't help thinking about A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian when I saw the story in The New York Times this week about the radical feminist movement Femen, which had its origins, apparently, in the Ukraine.      This group whose members protest topless, "now has chapters in nine countries, on four continents...calls its tactics “sextremism” and its hundreds of mostly volunteer members “shock troops” — frontline soldiers in a …
review by . June 22, 2013
I couldn't help thinking about A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian when I saw the story in The New York Times this week about the radical feminist movement Femen, which had its origins, apparently, in the Ukraine.      This group whose members protest topless, "now has chapters in nine countries, on four continents...calls its tactics “sextremism” and its hundreds of mostly volunteer members “shock troops” — frontline soldiers in a …
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The premise of Lewycka's debut novel is classic Viagra comedy: a middle-aged professor's aging and widowed father announces he intends to marry a blonde, big-breasted 30-something woman he has met at the local Ukrainian Social Club in the English town where he lives, north of London. It is clear to Nadezhda and her sister, Vera, that the femme fatale Valentina is only after Western luxuries—certainly not genuine love of any kind. Smitten with the ambitious hussy, their father forges ahead to help Valentina settle in England, spending what little pension he has buying her cars and household appliances and even financing her cosmetic surgery. In the meantime, Nadezhda, a socialist, and Vera, a proud capitalist, confront the longstanding ill will between them as they try to save their father from his folly. Predictable and sometimes repetitive hilarity ensues. But then Lewycka's comic narrative changes tone. Nadezhda, who has never known much about her parents' history, pieces it together with her sister and learns that there is more to her cartoonish father than she once believed. "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.
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ISBN-10: 0143036742
ISBN-13: 978-0143036746
Author: Marina Lewycka
Publisher: Penguin

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