BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, January 2015
If Elena Gorokhova’s splendid second memoir merely conveyed to readers a vivid, almost visceral understanding of the sometimes paralyzing sense of dislocation she experienced arriving in the United States in 1980 from the Soviet Union, that alone would be reason enough to read it. On her first day in the U.S., for instance, she visits the air-conditioned Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum with the American husband she barely knows, and wonders, “Why are there no smells? Russia assaults you in your nostrils: milk always on the verge of turning sour, the wet wool of winter coats we wear everyday for five months, rubber phone booth tiles buckled with urine. . . .”
In the first third of Russian Tattoo, which describes her first year in the U.S. and the full extent of her unhappy first marriage, nearly every page sings with sharp, intelligent, often witty observations about her new, confusing life in America.
But in a way, this section of the memoir is merely the brilliant surface of a more profound exploration of her split identity, of what leaving her Motherland and making a life in her new homeland has meant for Gorokhova: What does she carry? What does she leave behind?
Gorokhova accomplishes this through a moving exposition of her difficult relationships with her mother and her American-born daughter, Sasha. Readers of Gorokhova’s wonderful first memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs, know that Elena herself was a lively, rebellious daughter. Here she writes that her mother was “a mirror image of my Motherland—overbearing, protective, controlling, and nurturing.”
When Gorokhova’s own daughter is born, her mother arrives from the Soviet Union to live with them in New Jersey permanently. It’s a complicated set of relationships, but as the years pass, Gorokhova sees that her daughter has become “just as ruthless and honest as I used to be.” And she herself has seemingly become more like her mother. With these sorts of divides there are never clean resolutions, but as the illuminating final section of the memoir indicates, there are soulful accommodations. Some of us actually do get wiser as we get older.