Review: ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian’ by Marina Lewycka

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Friday, August 20, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

When their recently widowed father announces that he plans to remarry, sisters Vera and Nadezhda realize that they must learn to put aside a lifetime of bitter rivalry in order to save him. The new woman in his life is Valentina, a voluptuous gold-digger from Ukraine, fifty years his junior, with fabulous breasts and a proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, who will stop at nothing in her single-minded pursuit of the luxurious Western lifestyle she dreams of. But separating their addled and annoyingly lecherous dad from his new love will prove to be no easy feat-in terms of sheer cold-eyed ruthlessness, the two sisters swiftly realize that they are rank amateurs. As Hurricane Valentina turns the old family house upside down, all the old secrets come falling out, including the most deeply buried one of them all, from the war, the one that explains much about why Nadezhda and Vera are so different. In the meantime, oblivious to it all, their father carries on with the great work of his dotage-a grand history of the tractor and its role in human progress, giving due credit to the crucial Ukrainian contribution. The story carries us back to prerevolutionary Ukraine, through wartime Germany, to contemporary England, taking in love and suffering, tanks and tractors, bitchiness, sibling rivalry, and, above all, the joys of growing old disgracefully.  (Goodreads Summary)

The reviews on the cover of this book claim that it is ‘extremely funny’ and ‘mad and hilarious’. While these reviews may be true – the book is indeed very funny – they present a distinctly biased, innacurate picture of what the book is like. The reviews suggest that this novel is a light-hearted and frivolous comedy, but this is far from being the case.

Although the book maintains an almost constant comic tone and has its moments of levity, but the overwhelming impression is of something darker. At times, the story was desperately and surprisingly sad. The more usual humourous tone arises from interactions between the delightful cast of characters who are bitter and resentful, sad and lonely, or an interesting blend of other negative emotions, as they snipe at each other. Throughout the book I was continually aware that when I was laughing, I was laughing at someone and I felt slightly guilty about doing it. The spiteful bickering and snide remarks eventually lead to greater understanding between the characters and a satisfying, happy conclusion, but they do comprise the majority of the book. I liked the book a lot and at times it made me laugh out loud, it was just very different from the happy families comedy I was expecting.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka.  Published by Penguin, 2006, pp. 325.  Originally published in 2005.

N.B. This is an old review written in 2010 and posted on Goodreads and LibraryThing before I started keeping track of all the books I read here at Old English Rose Reads.  I’ve decided to keep copies here so that this remains a complete record of my reading since I started reviewing books for my own pleasure.

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