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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Short History of Tractors
in Ukrainian

Marina Lewycka

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Title: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Author: Marina Lewycka
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 294 pages
Availability: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - US
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - UK
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Canada
Kurze Geschichte des Traktors auf Ukrainisch - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B- : long-winded, superficial

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 15/3/2005 Jessica Mann
The Economist A 23/3/2005 .
Entertainment Weekly B+ 28/2/2005 Bella Stander
The Guardian C- 19/3/2005 Andrey Kurkov
The LA Times . 9/3/2005 Askold Melnyczuk
NZZ . 2/10/2006 Karl-Markus Gauss
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/5/2005 Boris Fishman
The New Yorker . 16/5/2005 .
San Francisco Chronicle A- 27/3/2005 Joel Whitney
The Spectator . 5/3/2005 Charlotte Hobson
Sunday Telegraph A 13/3/2005 Helen Brown
Sunday Times . 27/2/2005 Penny Perrick
The Times . 19/2/2005 Christa Koning
TLS B+ 25/2/2005 Lesley Chamberlain
The Village Voice . 12/4/2005 Rachel Aviv
The Washington Post . 20/3/2005 Susan Adams
Die Welt . 30/9/2006 Kerstin Strecker

  Review Consensus:

  Most liked it, some very much -- and many even found it funny !

  From the Reviews:
  • "Lots more happens but the plot is really a vehicle for social satire, some good jokes and an overdose of slapstick. It adds up to a clever, touching story." - Jessica Mann, Daily Telegraph

  • "(U)proariously funny (...) The author's imaginary world lets her explore the sort of problems that other east European émigrés in Britain often fear but seldom confront: chiefly, what to do with people we are supposed to like but don't trust or understand. Her dialogue, conducted between educated people who lack a common language, is a comic feast." - The Economist

  • "Not-so-hilarious complications ensue, many of them familiar to anyone who's witnessed the ravages of age. "There's no fool like an old fool'" appears to be the theme here, but Lewycka skillfully teases out a more complex story, underpinned by Ukraine's horrors under Stalin and Hitler." - Bella Stander, Entertainment Weekly

  • "The rhythm and dynamics of this debut novel are well managed and Lewycka succeeds in creating many comic situations. But the novel is not so much written as constructed, and the same can be said of the characters. Just about everyone portrayed in it inspires the sympathy of the reader except the Ukrainians, legal and illegal. What we see are caricatures. (...) Reading this novel gave me the impression that I had read a school textbook on Ukrainian history with one eye on an episode of Coronation Street." - Andrey Kurkov, The Guardian

  • "In die oft auflachend komischen Kapitel, die in der Gegenwart spielen, hat Marina Lewycka Passagen montiert, in denen die ukrainische Vorgeschichte der jetzt so gediegen britisch gewordenen Familie eingeholt wird. Die Absicht ist klar, sie will die Ressentiments, die nicht ganz zu Unrecht gegen die berechnende neue Einwanderin und Erbschleicherin gehegt werden, entlarven, indem sie an all die Verhängnisse und Schwierigkeiten erinnert, mit denen vor fünfzig Jahren auch die andere, jetzt so honorable Einwandererfamilie hatte kämpfen müssen." - Karl-Markus Gauss, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Lewycka is an awkward stylist, but the irony of Nadezhda's conversion is too obvious to miss." - Boris Fishman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In the midst of these machinations -- which include long-winded letters to solicitors, venomous gossip, and all-out spying -- Lewycka stealthily reveals how the depredations of the past century dictate what a family can bear." - The New Yorker

  • "Despite its title, A Short History of Tractors in Ukraine is at heart a romance: the story of the hilarious, savage and even occasionally tender love between Nikolai, an octogenarian and rather smelly tractor expert, and Valentina, an avaricious 36-year-old blonde from Kiev." - Charlotte Hobson, The Spectator

  • "Some of the cleverness of these dual texts (not to mention the family story of the war that Nadia is too young to know) remains hidden, blossoming toward the novel's resolution. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is an admirable first work. Lewycka has the tic, however, of inserting parenthetical asides that exhibit her narrator's reactions to other characters' dialogue, as if she doesn't trust that we know our narrator. Despite this, and despite tendencies toward the cute and chatty (...), this is an ambitious book that boils over with effortless joy and wisdom." - Joel Whitney, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Lewycka's hugely enjoyable and needling book is a marvellous dissection of the eastern European immigrant experience. This novel of ruts and progress, ease and horror, assumption and suspicion, yields a golden harvest of family truths." - Helen Brown, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Marina Lewycka’s authorial voice is pragmatic but never indulgent. Greedy Valentina is seen as a victim as much as a predator, Nikolai as needy as well as deranged. In his history of tractors, he describes how these peaceful machines are easily transformed into tanks. This lovely novel leaves you with the wistful belief that, if the world could only be governed by real grown-ups, tanks could, just as easily, be turned back into tractors." - Penny Perrick, Sunday Times

  • "What makes this book more than just a jolly romp with political undertones is the way it captures the peculiar flavour of Eastern European immigrant life in the postwar years, and after." - Christa Koning, The Times

  • "The novel seems also to be in conflict with itself. The slick contemporary comedy of manners is only a thin veneer over the heavier body of a painful family history. (...) (T)he joke is sad enough, the writing buoyant and the plotting neat. (...) Profundity would have needed deeper characterization, although perhaps we are meant to find it genuinely problematic that human characters are, as presented here, only bundles of experiences, with lives often best -- but too often -- expressed as lists. Profundity would also require a more satisfactory way of bridging the gap between contemporary, authority-dodging slapstick and the distressing history of the main characters' homeland in the last short century." - Lesley Chamberlain, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Like a reverse tale of colonization, booby-wife accumulates all the necessary Western loot (Hoover vacuum, Rolls -Royce, even bigger breasts) while the sisters watch in a state of ideological crisis. Their family problems become a cheery parody of the country's political dysfunctions." - Rachel Aviv, The Village Voice

  • "(C)harming, poignantly funny" - Susan Adams, The Washington Post

  • "Ein wunderbar kluges Buch. Und die Moral von der Geschicht: Jede Dummheit bedarf der Freiheit, sie zu begehen." - Kerstin Strecker, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is narrated by Nadezhda, a university lecturer approaching fifty, and focusses on the family misadventures that ensue when her recently widowed father falls in love -- at the age of eighty-four ! -- with a Ukrainian divorcée who is almost half a century younger than him. Part of the appeal is that she is Ukrainian, a country that he fled during World War II. And there's the matter of her breasts, which he is also quite taken by.
       The hussy, Valentina, needs a visa in order to be able to remain in Britain. Getting married would be a convenient way of obtaining one, and Nikolai Mayevsky is amenable to the idea. He understands that she may not feel quite the same way about him as he does about her, but he sees it as an opportunity -- for companionship, for one thing -- and enjoys deluding himself that this might turn out well. Nadezhda is concerned, but leaves Pappa to his own devices until it's quite too late. These events do, however, get her talking with her sister, Vera, again, after a dispute over their inheritance from their mother had widened an already large rift seemingly beyond repair.
       So a comedy less of errors than of ugliness unfolds: Valentina marries the old coot, but has rather different expectations of Western life than he can provide for. Besides not being virile (for which she is presumably thankful), he doesn't have much disposable income or savings. He's willing to spend it on her, but there's not enough to really make it worthwhile: yes, they buy a cheap Rolls Royce for a few hundred pounds, but it's almost beyond repair -- and the old man is certainly beyond repairing it, despite his engineer-background. Valentina holds a couple of jobs, but she's obviously used to having domestic help: she can't cook, and the house is soon a big mess. And she is not in the least a nice person (though she can turn on the charm when need be) and is abusive to the old man.
       The sisters plot to get dad out of this situation, writing to the Home Office to try to get her deported, then helping their father get a divorce. Vera, ten years older, is the tougher one, making fun of liberal Nadezhda, but the younger sister is soon on board with doing whatever needs be done to separate their father from the tramp.
       The old guy putters about fairly helplessly, not quite sure what he wants (the bitch Valentina, for all her abuse, is still a warm body in the same house, while his daughters live at a distance), his interests pretty much reduced to: "tractors and boobs". Yes, that's his one big project, writing: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, passages from which are interspersed throughout the novel.
       The novel is a family-story, of two very different daughters dealing with the loss of their mother and their father in his very old age. For Nadezhda it is also a story of discovery, as she learns more about her parents (and her sister). It also contrasts the immigrant experience then and now: Valentina's desperation is of a completely different sort (and order) than the Mayevskys' -- indeed, when asked whether life in Ukraine was better under communism she has no doubts (or qualms):

"Of course better. Was good life. You no understand what type of people is rule country now."
       As the old man explains, what separates him and his younger bride is a specific kind of generation conflict:
"Clearly this Valentina, she is of quite a different generation. She knows nothing of history., even less about the recent past."
       Though much is made of this here (especially in contrast to the lost mother, a remarkable hoarder essentially defined by history), but not enough. Much as the tractor-history is under-utilized -- presented for a bit of colour and variation, but not nearly as tied into the story as it could have been. Instead, the novel goes on and on about the petty domestic squabbles between the various actors and the tricks they all pull. It gets very tired, very fast, despite Lewycka's decent writing (and the humour of some of the situations, though the prevailing ugliness pretty much drowns that out).
       A major problem with the novel is that of the voice: Nadezhda narrates the story, but much of what she recounts is episodes where she was not present. Apparently, she re-imagines them from her father's accounts -- but he is presented as, if not completely doddering so certainly extremely manipulative and selective in the information he conveys. So what is to be believed ?
       Disappointingly, Valentina also remains too little understood. She is presented as an unbelievably awful person, but she seems hard-working in certain spheres (holding down more than one job, despite the fact that she seems incapable of doing anything around the house). She also has any number of men doting on her, and while her augmented breasts may make for an initial appeal, from the descriptions of her it's hard to believe anybody would put up with this bitch for any amount of time. Bizarrely, too, once Valentina leaves their father's life they don't simply celebrate and say good riddance and instead seek her out (and even show some sympathy -- leading Valentina to complain (echoing what many readers probably think by that point): "Why you go pocking nose in every place ? Eh ?"). It's unclear how much can be attributed to the unreliability of the narrator -- who, for example, voices little guilt over what to an outsider must appear as callous indifference to her father's fate: she voices concern that Valentina may not be right for him, but it takes her a long time to actually do much about it (and it apparently only occurs to her very late on that her father might be lonely).
       Much of this rings vaguely true -- the selfish, bickering kids who have to deal with an aging parent whom they don't really have time for, the refugee who is willing to mess up the life of everyone who gets in her way in her desperation to get what she wants, etc. -- but it's both ugly and simplistic. There's little character development (Nadezhda's daughter and nieces are barely shadows, and her husband little better than a prop), but lots of description -- most of which is to too little purpose. The historical parts, both family- and tractor-history -- are more intriguing but woefully tied into the narrative. There are comic elements and at least Nadezhda remains fairly upbeat, no matter how horrific things get, but that's far from enough to redeem the novel.
       Occasionally, there are some nice touches, but most of the eureka-moments are too forced. Unsure of quite what it wants to be -- an ugly little tale of aging and dependence, or a more ambitious look at the émigré-experience -- A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is an occasionally amusing but overall very unpleasant novel.

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Marina Lewycka was born in 1946.

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© 2005-2009 the complete review

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