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"No, no, that is the naive view, Nadezhda. You see, this is the dark underside of human nature. When someone has power, the lesser people always try to gain favour with them. Look at the way Father always tries to please Valentina, even when she abuses him. Look at the way your Labour politicians are creeping up to offer their homage (she prounces it hom-AAHJ) to the capitalists (she pronounces it cap-IT-alists), whom they vowed to overthrow. Of course, it's not just politicians; it happens throughout the animal kingdom too."

(Oh, Big Sis, what a nose you have for sniffing out the tainted, the soiled, the venal, the compromised. When did you learn to see so darkly?)


A prospective reader would have to go some to find a more inviting opening to a novel than this one:
Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. 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.
And Ms Lewycka largely delivers on the promise thereof, though this is yet another in a long line of books that leaves one frustrated that there are no such thing as editors any more.

The narrator here is Nadezhda, a vacuously utopian and PC sociology professor, who, along with her conservative and cynical sister, Vera, spends the entire book trying to break up the relationship between their somewhat addled father -- who's busy writing the tractor history of the title -- and the blonde bombshell who's using him as a means of avoiding deportation from England. The machinations of the sisters, the counterattacks by the hussy, and the confused vacillations by the father provide real comedy, especially in the first half of the book. But as the author delves into the family background -- including the reasons for the past estrangement of the sisters -- things take on a darker tone: "I had thought this story was going to be a knockabout farce, but now I see it is developing into a knockabout tragedy." Ultimately it's neither farce nor tragedy, but a winning exploration of how the past -- the Ukraine's bleak 20th Century, in this instance -- reaches out and influences the present and of how immigrants may escape their former countries but still be haunted by the history of their native lands.

The fit between the comedy and the tragedy is somewhat awkward, but Ms Lewycka does pull it off. She's less successful at sustaining the central marital drama for the whole book. Even at under three hundred pages it does start to drag by the end. Meanwhile, a number of elements are underutilized, including the history of the tractors, which is excerpted on occasion but not as fully as we might like. And she doesn't ever really tie it in to her own story as well as would seem to have been her original intent. It kind of hangs there as a remnant from a more ambitious version of the novel. My biggest problem with the book though was that Nadia narrates the whole thing and I didn't much like her. Her socialism and her optimism about people's intentions are an affront not just to reality in general but to her family history in particular. For most of the time that she spends complaining about her more down to earth and insightful sister one longs to smack her upside the head. Obviously an author is entitled to choose who narrates the tale, but so much of the story occurs when Nadia isn't present that her omniscient narration is downright peculiar. The novel would benefit from the perspective of both her sister and her father, not least by giving their views of her and her rather trite leftwing politics. But these are quibbles and it's not unusual to find structural faults in a first novel. On the whole the book is quite impressive and we look forward to Ms Lewycka's future efforts.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

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Women Authors
Marina Lewycka Links:
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    -Marina Lewycka (Wikipedia)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian : A Novel by Marina Lewycka
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian : A Novel by Marina Lewycka (Penguin Group)
    -AWARDS: 2005 prize: shortlisted book (Orange Prize for Fiction)
    -ARCHIVES: "Marina Lewycka" (Find Articles)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Debut Novel Tackles Ukraine's Dark Political Past (Morning Edition, April 20, 2005, NPR)
    -INTERVIEW: Where tragedy, tractors and comedy meet. Marina Lewycka in interview (Andrew Lawless, April 2005, Three Monkeys)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian : A Novel by Marina Lewycka (MetaCritic)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian : A Novel by Marina Lewycka (Reviews of Books)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Boris Fishman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Barbara Liss, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Amanda Heller, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Bella Stander, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian ()
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (EMILY ZIBART, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Joel Whitney, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Susan Adams, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Rachel Aviv, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Ian Hocking, Spike)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Jessica Mann, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Helen Brown, Sunday Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Andrey Kurkov, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Penny Perrick, Sunday Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (CHRISTINA KONING, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (David Larsen, NZ Herald)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Charlotte Hobson, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Emma Hagestadt, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Michele A. Berdy, Moscow Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Reading Matters)

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