A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
At first the plot appears to involve only the father, 84, who meets and marries a buxom and glamorous Ukrainian divorcee, aged 36. The father who is lonely thinks it’s true love; Valeria, the blond, wants to experience the Western life style with a rich husband. The father is not rich. The complication are numerous and very funny. Not the least of the humor is in Valentina’s butchered English in which “crap car” is the only vehicle her new husband can afford, and she taunts him with “squishy squashy flippy floppy” in the most embarrassing contexts. She talks constantly, knows all the top brand names, and never takes “no” for an answer whether it’s a superior person’s vacuum cleaner or a new brown cooker for a woman whose fanciest dish is boil-in-the-bag.
Nadezhda, the younger daughter, and Vera, the elder, have never been close but are forced to collaborate to save the father from misery—and possibly death since Valentina knocks him around a bit to express her frustration at the inferior lifestyle he provides. The adventures are hilarious—but go on a bit too long. In the process, Nadezhda, happily married to the easy going Mike, gradually gets to know her older sister who's divorced and cynical. They discover they have opposite worldviews: Vera sees human beings as inately evil—or at least foolish—while Nadezhda thinks the best of everyone—even Valentina now and then. She and Mike are the hands-on helpers; Vera kibitzes on the phone.
Nikolai, the father, was educated as an engineer and has several patents to his name. In his retirement he’s writing the tractor history which is sampled in the book. In the process he tells some of the history of Soviet industry and eventually gets to the rest of the world and explains why John Deere’s superior tractor design spelled disaster for the Great Plains of the US.
As Vera and Nadezhda interact and become closer, the latter learns more and more of the harrowing time the family had getting out of Ukraine and into Britain via work camps and even a prison in Germany. She learns that something awful happened to Vera involving cigarettes, something which has obviously influenced the course of both her life style and her world view. The new information melds with what family history Nadezhda already knew to strengthen family bonds with both father and sister.
The novel, like those of Jonathon Saffron Foer and Nichole Krauss in the US, reaches back to Eastern Europe before and during WWII to integrate the understanding of those family twigs nurtured in a freer atmosphere. Unlike Foer and Krauss, though, Lewycka does not use a child narrator, though the novel ends with a tale of “wartime baby” and “peacetime baby” that grew up to be Vera and Nadedezda.
And it all ends happily—like a good comedy should.