"An amusing, astonishing debut . . . about how a family learns to let go of the past and live and love in the present." -The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
With this wise, tender, and deeply funny novel, Marina Lewycka takes her place alongside Zadie Smith and Monica Ali as a writer who can capture the unchanging verities of family. When an elderly and newly widowed Ukrainian immigrant announces his intention to remarry, his daughters must set aside their longtime feud to thwart him. For their father's intended is a voluptuous old-country gold digger with a proclivity for green satin underwear and an appetite for the good life of the West. As the hostilities mount and family secrets spill out, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian combines sex, bitchiness, wit, and genuine warmth in its celebration of the pleasure of growing old disgracefully.
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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March 28, 2006
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Excerpt from A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
1. Two phone calls and a funeral
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.
It all started with a phone call.
My father's voice, quavery with excitement, crackles down the line.
"Good news, Nadezhda. I'm getting married!"
I remember the rush of blood to my head. Please let it be a joke! Oh, he's gone bonkers! Oh, you foolish old man! But I don't say any of those things.
"Oh, that's nice, Pappa," I say.
"Yes, yes. She is coming with her son from Ukraina. Ternopiol in Ukraina." Ukraina: he sighs, breathing in the remembered scent of mown hay and cherry blossom. But I catch the distinct synthetic whiff of New Russia.
Her name is Valentina, he tells me. But she is more like Venus. "Botticelli's Venus rising from waves. Golden hair. Charming eyes. Superior breasts. When you see her you will understand."
The grown-up me is indulgent. How sweet--this last late flowering of love. The daughter me is outraged. The traitor! The randy old beast! And our mother barely two years dead. I am angry and curious. I can't wait to see her--this woman who is usurping my mother.
"She sounds gorgeous. When can I meet her?"
"After marriage you can meet."
"I think it might be better if we could meet her first, don't you?"
"Why you want to meet? You not marrying her." (He knows something's not quite right, but he thinks he can get away with it.)
"But Pappa, have you really thought this through? It seems very sudden. I mean, she must be a lot younger than you."
I modulate my voice carefully, to conceal any signs of disapproval, like a worldly-wise adult dealing with a love struck adolescent.
"Thirty-six. She's thirty-six and I'm eighty four. So what?" (He pronounces it 'vat.')
There is a snap in his voice. He has anticipated this question.
"Well, it's quite an age difference..."
"Nadezhda, I never thought you would be so bourgeois." (He puts the emphasis on the last syllable - wah!)
"No, no." He has me on the defensive. "It's just that...there could be problems."
There will be no problems, says Pappa. He has anticipated all problems. He has known her for three months.