Alina Bronksy The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2011).
Europa Editions does it again! This novel tells the story of a Russian family’s adventures, narrated by Rosa, the unstoppable grandmother. Though Rosa is the worst kind of scheming, interfering matriarch, she’s also hysterical — her pointed criticisms and matter-of-fact approach to life planted a smirk on my face for almost the entire book. Here’s what she says about puberty, for example:
Dieter said it was normal. Aminat was approaching puberty. I found even the word “puberty” obscene. Dieter said it happened to every girl. I tried to remember what it had been like for Sulfia, or even for myself, and concluded that neither of us had gone through anything like this. First you were a child, then at some point you were an adult. There was no reason to get fat, ugly, or belligerent. (190)
Rosa begins her story when she hears she’s going to become a grandmother; she proceeds to use any means possible to prevent her lost, passive daughter, Sulfia, from having the fatherless child. No matter, Aminat is born and becomes the dearest thing in the world to Rosa who practically kidnaps her, since she sees Sulfia, an otherwise competent nurse, as a totally irresponsible mother. In part through Rosa’s meddling, Sulfia and Aminat have particularly unstable lives. Sulfia marries three times and the three women move from Russia to Germany in search of a better life, though it means they must live with a pedophile named Dieter who’s writing a book about Russian cuisine.
At her worst, Rosa exerts relentless control over her life and everyone in it. She sacrifices her family’s wishes to her own will and never understands that she is the source of their strife. At her best, however, Rosa is an inspiration. She can do anything and what she doesn’t know how to do, she wants to master. After moving to Germany, she learns to drive with little help from the patronizing instructor. Rosa is one of the most resourceful characters that I can remember having ever encountered. She’s not embarrassed to get what she wants, even if she has to bribe people with chocolate. Though trained as a teacher, she’s happy to take a job as a cleaning lady and, if the mood strikes her, she can always get by on her good looks. She’s never alone for long, and when she is alone, she’s never lonely.
I enjoyed this book immensely and its dark humor manages to disguise some of the story’s sadness. By the end, Rosa loses her husband and daughter, and becomes estranged from the rebellious and damaged Aminat, but she starts to learn one important trait she was missing all along: humility.