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.
Between the modern narrative is twisted the story of Nadia and Vera's family, with a particular focus on the younger lives of Nikolai and his late wife Ludmilla. Theirs is a slightly complicated story moving between countries and cities, and clashing with the German tyranny of the Second World War. I found these parts of the novel a little offputting, I must admit, with places I'd never heard of being rolled out left, right and centre, and some confusion as to what happened when. Perhaps this was Lewycka's intention, however, as the idea is that Nadia is trying to figure out her family's past in order to understand the tensions between them today - but since she wasn't even born then, she can only try to tease partial and conflicting accounts from her father and sister in an attempt to set things straight in her own mind. Fortunately her final, complete version of events is laid out at the end of the book to clarify the muddle!
That confusion aside, it was a very good read. Nikolai and Valentina are wonderful characters, Nikolai with his obsession with aviation and tractors (the book he is writing, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, gives the novel its title) and his fondness for microwaved apples, and Valentina with her satin underwear, boil-in-the-bag cooking and regular explosions of righteous indignation over what she believes English life should be like. The family relationships were very convincing, and I enjoyed the unfamiliar backdrop of their Ukrainian past - and the strangely satisfying and heartwarming extracts from Nikolai's tractor book!
The final verdict: Well, it didn't blow me away, and I don't feel the need to keep it to read again, but nevertheless it was a quick and enjoyable little read and I'd warmly recommend giving it a try...
The novel concerns Nadezhda, the daughter of her elderly widowed father Nikolai, who just two years after his first wife's death is looking to remarry -- to a buxom blonde Ukrainian bombshell named Valentina who quickly proves to be little more than a golddigger. It is her efforts to prevent and then break up this marriage that force Nadia to get back in touch with her estranged sister Vera and confront a history that both have been unwilling to discuss and unable to forget.
Though that sounds incredibly dense, the novel is actually relatively straightforward and conventional in its structure and its characterization. Though Nadia's first-person narration gives us somewhat more depth into her personality, many of the characters come off as caricatures (perhaps with the exception of Vera, who becomes increasingly less so as the novel progresses). While this may seem to oversimplify the novel, Lewycka handles each situation with aplomb, crafting a novel that wants to be funny and -- surprise! -- genuinely IS funny.
The flatness of the novel's perceived intent and character, however, underlies the fact that the work deals with more complex issues than it may originally seem. Nadia and Vera, though in opposition to Valentina throughout, also confront the question of what makes a "deserving" immigrant, and the solution that Vera offers about the "right" way to emigrate is subtly challenged by the narration. Also treated with seriousness is the history of Vera as her family escaped war-torn Ukraine, a history that took place before Nadia was born and forces both to question who owns a family history and the power of silence as explanation.
The novel comes off as if it wants to be nothing more than as "fluffy" as the "pink grenade" with which Valentina explodes into the family's life, but by the end, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian explores intense and relevant questions in mature if somewhat incomplete ways. It is by turns silly and severe, profound and preposterous, and nothing short of an impressive first effort.
The resulting conflict between the daughters, Valentina the scammer, and Pappa is both hilarious and touching. Nadezhda, our leftist narrator, is a sociology professor who wrestles with her own conflict: she is certain Valentina is on the make but also wants her father to be happy. Nadezhda is in conflict with her sister, Vera, the cynical “divorce expert,” who does everything she can to bar Valentina from what little money Pappa has. The sisters, as Nadezhda says, “grew up in the same house but lived in different countries.” For his part, Pappa is deliriously happy, as Valentina and her son move into his modest home and feed him “boil in the bag” meals. But things quickly turn sour: Valentina wants a car and buys a Range Rover that is soon dubbed “crap car,” the sisters suspect Valentina is having at least one affair with younger men, and her son, “the genius,” turns out to be a mediocre student whose private education is soaking up Pappa’s meager pension.
What ensues is a battle of wits: the daughters try to get rid of Valentina while Valentina tries to manipulate the situation so she can stay in England. Pappa, meanwhile, writes his history of the tractor, an agricultural opus that takes us on a fascinating trip down memory lane.
Apparently a number of critics find this novel to be “Viagra comedy” but they must not have actually read it; in fact, there isn’t a single mention of Viagra (or anything of the sort: Pappa’s “squishy-squashy” is consistently “flippy-floppy”) in the book. Rather, A Short History is precisely what the title advertises: an excursus on Ukrainian history and the trauma that brought Nadezhda’s family to England. (It’s also a riff on a little known, at least in the West, Soviet-era genre called the tractor romance.) There’s a profundity at work here that may be too subtle for some: Lewycka is so far from pedantic, and her prose so mellifluous, that blockbuster-jaded readers might be lulled into a false sense of banality. The premise is banal, but the juxtaposition of, for instance, Nadezhda making soup with Pappa recalling life in a concentration camp is exquisite. The comedy is primarily in Pappa’s heavily accented speech—which Lewycka lovingly captures through syntax, avoiding, for the most part, the cheap trick of spelling—and his amazing ability to detour around the obvious in favor of his fantasy (agricultured) world.
Lewycka is a compelling writer, keen of ear and sharp of eye, who layers events and dialogue in a natural way that provoke potent philosophical and political insights. Perhaps what is most admirable about this novel, and hopefully so attractive to a Boomer audience, is her compassionate but cuttingly honest portrayal of old age. This is most welcome in a culture that, even as it ages, maintains a self-loathing cult of youth. Here’s to “tractors and boobs” and to looking forward to Lewycka’s next novel.
Originally published, in slightly different form, in Curled Up with a Good Book
I think it is a shame that this book has been marketed as an "hilarious comedy", there is a tragic, much more interesting side to it that should have been highlighted on the book jacket.
Gullible, 84 year old, Nikolai proposes to voluptuous gold digger Ukranian, Valentina. Immediately his warring daughters call a truce to oust this cuckoo from their nest.
There are some amusing bits - especially the descriptive insults that Valentina spews forth when angered, but overall I thought it was sad.
Old Nikolai was extremely vulnerable and endangered at the hands of his much younger wife, yet only too happy to forgive when she turned on the charms.
Their family's history was particularly poingant, from their struggle through the civil war to their eventual escape at the end of WWII. In comparison, Valentina's escape from Ukraine to better herself and her son seemed very selfish.
There was scope for a much more meaningful novel, but the handling was a bit too light for the content.
Should make for some interesting discussion at my book group though.
It's a rather uneven story which seems to want to be all things in one. The beginning sets you up for a screwball romp and the end is a neatly wrapped package with some well-needed resolution for the characters. In between are some historic parts that are very interesting, but not developed enough, some parts about dealing with aging parents, which waver between sad and ridiculous, and some parts that just make you want to smack the characters over the head for being plain stupid. There are some quite funny jokes (Crap Car springs to mind), but it's not a "funny book" per se.
The really fascinating parts are those that talk about the history of the Ukraine (no, not the tractors!) and about the family's experiences during the war. The stories that Nadezhda manages to get the reluctant Vera to tell her are absolutely captivating. I really wish that the whole novel had been about those experiences with a more serious narrative and that the Valentina-plot had been a completely separate story.
The story could have been a bleak tale of asylum seeking and the horrors of the cold war, but - as the quirky title suggests - it's very funny in places. Some of the characters, particularly busty blonde Valentina, seemed a bit two dimensional at times but the story wouldn't have worked so well if you hadn't have been able to see a real person underneath the stereotype.
‘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, brining to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.'
The main narrative follows the partnership between the father (Nikolai) and the Ukrainian divorcee (Valentina) through the eyes of his daughter Nadia; however the romance is not as it seems which leads to an enticing tale of deception and mystery; and sisters united in removing this lady from their father’s life. The book is set in England, where the family moved from the Ukraine after the Second World War. Much of the comedy comes from the poor grasp of the English language; with Valentina making statements such as ' you plenty-money meanie. You want give me crap cooker.' In addition to situational comedy moments, such as the daughters anguish at hearing their fathers interest in Valentina's 'breasts like ripe peaches'. There flows enough comedy to keep you lightly tickled throughout.
I found the most compelling part of this book however to be the layers of story that had subtly been woven in. There was the present day drama of the father’s romance, which brought together his two daughters in a common cause, when they hadn't spoken for sometime previously. The development of the sisters relationship was interesting, but also allowed for a narrative on the history of the family, how they came to be in England and what happened during the War to the parents. At the same time, the father is writing his life’s work, a book by the same name of the novel (if you were wondering how that came into the story). Parts of his book on tractors are transcribed as he is reading them to anyone that will listen, and this gives another dimension to the story. The history of tractors is weaved into an overriding history of the Ukraine, technology and again, the war. All of these layers of story together, for me, made what was a book with a slow start, quite an enjoyable read once all was told.
Whilst this was an ok read with an uplifting and enjoyable ending I don't think its quality lives up to the hype. This is a book that was longlisted for the Booker prize, shortlisted for the Orange prize and won a prize for comic fiction. It has been heavily marketed with a catchy title and an enticing cover but I don't feel the novel itself lives up to the billing.
This book is a light-hearted read and yet deals with some serious issues. Nikolai is very old and frail and is being taken advantage of financially by his new wife and she is often violent towards him and neglects their home leaving him in squalor. That this is a comedy means that these issues are not dealt with and we are encouraged to laugh at Nikolai's naivety and helplessness whilst thinking, actually that's not funny at all. There was a lack of description that didn't bring the characters to life, apart from maybe Valentina, particularly Stanislav, Mike and Vera. Plus I felt that the Ukrainian immigrants were stereotyped. Is it ok because Lewycka herself is Ukrainian so she is allowed to laugh at her own, or is she really reinforcing prejudices against immigrants in search of a better life?
In all this was a disappointment. Top marks to the marketing department, shame about the novel itself.
First, we have two middle-aged sisters, Vera and Nadia, who emigrated from Ukraine to UK as children. They don't get along. And they have much angst about this but seem powerless to change their relationship.
Second, we have their father, Nikolai, an elderly widower also living in the UK. He's lonely and a bit naive. And he's writing a history of tractors, and relates the development of the tractor to other events in history. Actually, Nikolai didn't annoy me. I felt sorry for him. Let's move on.
Third, there's Valentina, a 30-something Ukrainian blonde bombshell. She has a young son and very large breasts. Valentina convinces Nikolai to marry her in order to provide legal residency and an education for her son. As I mentioned, Nikolai is lonely and naive. And he likes her breasts. So he agrees.
Back to Vera and Nadia. Their father's marriage causes them even more angst. This, I could understand because Valentina turns out to be after Nikolai's money. And she spends it like there's no tomorrow. But Vera and Nadia? They whine, and talk, and fight with one another. Then they whine, and talk some more. Eventually they do something about the situation.
There were some interesting elements to this book, like gaining some understanding of Ukrainian political events that led to the family's relocation in the 1940s. And there was a great deal of humor in the book, especially the portrayal of Valentina who was really over the top. But almost from the beginning, I felt like I knew where the story would go. And the dynamics between the sisters bored me. When the "big reveal" came, which explained why the two were so different in a way that was supposed to be oh so emotional, it just left me flat.
When their recently-widowed father announces he plans to remarry, sisters Vera and Nadezhda realise they must put aside a lifetime of feuding in order to save him. His new love is a voluptuous gold-digger from the Ukraine half his age, with a proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, who stops at nothing in her single-minded pursuit of the luxurious Western lifestyle she dreams of. But the old man, too, is pursuing his eccentric dreams – and writing a history of tractors in Ukrainian.
A wise, tender and deeply funny novel about families, the belated healing of old wounds, the trials and consolations of old age and – really – about the legacy of Europe’s history over the last fifty years."
Even if everyone´s pointing to its funny, I find it more thought-provoking than hilarious. The way it covers family struggles and tells the history of a surviving people after WWII is really sensitive.
The quote: "Marriage is never just about people falling in love, it is about families."
Found at the Youth Hostel of Uig, could purchase it for a pound and a half and didn´t regret taking it all along our Scottish travel
At the surface, this book was about Nadia, her sister Vera and their aging father, who had fallen in love with a 36-year-old Ukrainian woman. Valentina clearly wanted to marry Nadia’s dad to ensure a British visa. Despite the daughters’ protests, the two married and shared a life of fighting, verbal abuse and general misery. Eventually, Dad (convinced by his daughters) wanted to divorce Valentina, but this became an enormous task. The ups and downs of their relationship hogged the story line, and after 100 pages, it became frustrating and burdensome. If it were not for the other themes in this book, I would have abandoned “Tractor History.”
Once I muddled (or ignored) the love/divorce story, I found layers that better fit my literary tastes. By spending time with her father and sister, Nadia discovered how her family immigrated to England from Ukraine after World War II. Nadia’s parents did not have an easy start to their marriage – either living in paranoia of Stalin’s purges or surviving a German work camp during the war. Through her family history, Nadia learned about the true meaning of survival, which made her father’s current drama seem so inconsequential.
I also enjoyed the short blurbs that were, in fact, a short history of tractors in Ukrainian. Nadia’s father was an engineer and an expert in tractors. Throughout the book, he shared snippets of his “short history.” These passages showed how technology, though intended to improve our lives, should not take over how we live.
Also, The "rights” of immigration were central to this book. Two sides of the immigration question emerged: people who emigrate to escape a tyranny and those who escape to better their lives financially. Nadia’s family was from the first camp, escaping Stalin, communists and Nazis. Valentina was from the second – trying to escape the financial chaos of Ukraine. Which one had the most “right” to settle into another country? Was one reason better than the other?
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was short-listed for the Orange Prize and became a bestseller around the world. I would recommend it to those who like to read about family relationships or Orange Prize books. For me, the love drama was a bit overdone, but overall, Marina Lewycka’s book is a good one.
This is a voyage of discovery, with tragi-comic elements and it doesn't end happily ever after which makes a refreshing change.
This novel left me feeling like one of those class members.
This is the story of old Nikolai Mayevskyj (pronounced "Mayevski"), eccentric immigrant engineer from Ukraine who falls in love at the age of eighty-four with a sex-bomb, Valentina, who is thirty-six. Valentina has the only goal of finding domicile for herself and her "genius" son, Stanislav, in the UK: and the recently widowed engineer is an easy target. Nikolai's daughters Vera and Nadehzda (the first-person narrator) are appalled, and set about rescuing their father from this scheming vixen, burying their running feud about their mother's legacy temporarily. In the process, a lot of dirty family laundry is unearthed, a lot of distressing events take place, but true to the tradition of comic literature, things pan out in the end.
If one believes the blurbs on the jacket, the novel is "extremely funny" (The Times), "mad and hilarious" (The Daily Telegraph) and "...a comic feast, a riotous oil painting of senility, lust and greed" (Economist). But I found it to be nothing of the sort. The deliberate comic tone of voice that the author adopted was jarring, in view of the fact that extremely serious matters like the abuse of the elderly was being described. You can't laugh such things off.
Also, there is the matter of portrayal. All the characters were seriously lacking in sympathy: there is hardly a one there the reader will care to identify with. Many of the conversations (especially where a kind of pidgin English was used to parody the Ukrainians' imperfect grasp of the language) were narrated in a tone of mockery - and when an author mocks her own creations, how can the reader take them seriously?
The book Nikolai is writing, A Short History of Tractors in the Ukrainian, is included as a sort of metaphor for the journey (historical, mental and physical) of the East European expatriate engineer, interested only in machines, from the communist East to the capitalist West. Nikolai's reading of excerpts of the book is interspersed with the main narrative throughout the novel, which though informative, failed to meld with the main story. The unspeakable horrors suffered by the family under Stalin and the Nazis somehow fail to make the impact they should, mainly because of the author's insistence on keeping up a comic tone.
However, three stars for a worthwhile story, and a social problem well-presented. But one is forced to think Ms. Lewycka would have created more of an impact if the book was written in dead seriousness. There is nothing more distressing than a joke which falls flat.
The novel is neither as bleak as it sounds from above nor as funny as the blurbs on the cover contend; it's more like real life, a mix of emotions. In response to a number of readers who hated the daughters and felt that they should just have let their father be happy: 1) Nadia is initially conflicted; she has legitimate concerns but feels that her father has the right to make his choice. 2) For the most part, Nikolai ISN'T happy with Valentina, who not only spends every penny he has and puts him into debt but also forces him to borrow from his daughters for her selfish benefit and abuses him both verbally and physically. This is not, at least in the case of Nadia, a King Lear-ish tale of greedy, pelican daughters trying to spoil an old man's happiness and drive him to the grave.
I have to interject a personal note here -- I have a friend who took on a bride from the Ukraine and the same sorts of things happened re money that happened in this book: the new designer clothing, the top of the line everything appliances and a general draining of the bank account. Too funny!
I would have liked to have seen much more of the history of life under Stalin and maybe that would have made this book a little more serious and bring out more of this message about the past, but in general, this book was a fun read, and I would definitely recommend it.