rating: 4 of 5 stars
I don’t really know much about tractors and frankly, tractors don’t really interest me greatly. If you are the same way, don’t let the title of this book turn you off from reading it…it is NOT a history of tractors. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a very readable and comedic debut novel by Marina Lewycka.
The story is narrated by Nadia, whose 84 year old father, Nikolai, calls to let her know that he is marrying a 36 year old divorcee from the Ukraine. He tells Nadia:
Her name is Valentina…But she is more like Venus. “Botticelli’s Venus rising from the waves. Golden hair. Charming eyes. Superior breasts. When you see her you will understand.”
The impending marriage brings Nadia and her estranged older sister Vera together as they work to protect their father from the perceived threat of his bride-to-be, Valentina. They fear that Valentina is just marrying their father for his pension and to get a British passport. The story has touches of humor as the sisters deal with their father and his new, demanding wife and her son. The tale also occasionally flashes back into the family’s history in Ukraine, their troubles during the war, and their immigration to the UK. Throughout the book, Nikolai plugs away working on his book about the history of tractors in the Ukraine. He pictures himself as an intellectual and a brilliant engineer. He lives his days in a room surrounded by rotting “Toshiba apples” (his culinary specialty– apples microwaved in his Toshiba microwave). He is quirky to say the least, and life with his new bride ends up being not quite what he expected.
Lewycka’s novel was a witty, page-turner. I found it to be a very quick read. The story is populated with memorable characters. Through Nadia’s eyes, I can easily picture Valentina the gold-digger as she schemes to milk more and more money and possessions out of befuddled Nikolai. As the book proceeds though we begin to suspect that Valentina may not be as evil as Nadia sees her. The book does a great job portraying family dynamics between sisters, father and daughters and husband and wife. It shows the different experiences that family members have and how those experiences shape them and their relationships with each other. Nadia grew up in the UK and was not directly effected by the war, while her sister Vera who is 10 years older was deeply shaped by the war and life in work camps. As a result, Nadia is very much British in her mindset, whereas her sister and father have more of a Ukrainian way of thinking. Underneath the humor, Lewycka has created a complex story about family and the experiences of Eastern European immigrants in the UK.
A Short History of Tractors in the Ukrainian was nominated for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.
The book is also included in the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die and will count towards the 1% Well-Read challenge that I am participating in.