Don't let the title of Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian deceive you rather than an account of the development of farm equipment, it is a debut novel centered on the dilemma two estranged sisters face when their elderly Å½migrÅ½ father falls in love with a gold-digging Ukrainian bombshell. However, tractor enthusiasts need not despair embedded in the novel is the father's magnum opus, after which the book is named.
The author, who herself was born to Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp and grew up in England, vividly depicts the life of Nadezhda, a sociology professor (thought by her entire family to be a social worker) whose 84-year-old father plans to marry the buxom 36-year-old Valentina in order to save her from a miserable life in the old country. When Nadezhda's na•ve hopes that the marriage will bring her father happiness in his old age are dashed, she and her sister Vera (with whom she has not spoken since their mother's death two years before) join forces to separate the unhappy couple. In doing so, they must scheme to send Valentina and her son back to the Ukraine while fending off their father's pleas for money to support Valentina's automobile addiction and his lecherous comments about the “superiority” of her figure.
Lewycka brings humor to the struggles of immigration and the difficulties inherent in the shift between the communist and capitalist ways of life, while maintaining gravity in her description of Nadezhda's family's escape to England. The lingual and cultural differences between the Ukraine and England provide many laughs, and Valentina, whose obsession with material possessions seems to be only an exaggeration of the materialism that has long existed in the West, is a villain the reader loves to hate. A quick, light story with flamboyant characters and a unique cultural framework, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a good choice for any reader who enjoys tales of family drama.
Emily Zibart writes from New York City.