Moonlight in Odessa – Cultural Surprises and a Giveaway

29 10 2010

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting Janet Skeslien Charles, a native of Montana who now makes her home in Paris, and who has written an engaging first novel called Moonlight in Odessa.

Moonlight in Odessa

Faced with graduating college with a minor in Russian and lacking any practical experience with the language, Janet got a fellowship to move to Odessa, in Ukraine,  for two years to teach English.  I think it was a daring thing to do, but then, I can barely read Russian.  While there she learned a lot about Odessan culture, and gained an appreciation for the hearty, comforting food.  Later, her experiences there inspired her to write this novel, with a bright, determined, young Odessan woman named Daria as its heroine.

When the story opens, Daria is working as a secretary for a shipping company.  She has a tense relationship with her boss, who drops not-so-subtle hints that sexual favors are part of the job.  After a particularly awkward encounter, Daria begins to worry about her job security and begins moonlighting at a “dating” service designed to fix up Ukranian women with American or European men.  In the course of translating letters and emails for the mail-order brides, she starts corresponding with a couple of the men herself.  One ends up proposing, offering her a new life in America, the Land of Opportunity, which leads to a series of difficult decisions for Daria.  What is most important?  Family?  Love?  Security?  Happiness?

Daria is vegetarian, a choice that surprised me.  I suppose I thought that Eastern Europe was the land of meat and potatoes, but Janet’s descriptions of Daria’s meals – from silky smooth imported hummus to her grandmother’s eggplant caviar, potato salad, and borscht – are both mouthwatering and meatless.  The wholesome home-cooked meals Daria enjoys in Odessa contrast distinctly with the food she encounters in the United States, where so much of it comes ready-to-eat in bags, tubs, and cans.

While food is present throughout the book, I think it is there more as a  representative of culture than as an end in itself.  (I know, not all readers are as food-obsessed as I am.)  But there were still a lot of themes I could relate to.  The question of language and how it is used was one.  Daria’s English is arguably better than that of most native speakers, and yet the first time she goes to an American movie, she is completely lost.  She knows the words, but doesn’t understand the cultural references or the slang terms.  I feel much the same way when I try to watch French TV.

I was also surprisingly moved by the relationship Daria has with her home city.  She’s not shy about telling us the things she hates about it: the ugly Soviet apartment blocks, the way the mafia control nearly everything, the constant fear of not having enough money, the writing off of an unmarried woman over twenty-three as a spinster.  But she deeply loves it, too.  She proudly declares many times that Odessa is home to the world’s third most beautiful opera house, she loves walking along the beach, and she loves being with her grandmother.  I found myself wondering, “how can you hate so many things about a place, and yet still love the place itself?”  Paris is a bit like that for me – I can gripe all day about the phone company, or how the store always has everything but what I’m looking for, or being discriminated against because of my accent, but at the end of the day, if you ask me how I like living in Paris, there’s really only one response.  I love it.

Over our tisanes, Janet and I talked about living abroad, and the love/hate relationships we always have with the places we live.  One quirk that may be particular to Paris is the notion of others that everything here is magical and perfect.  She put it rather succinctly, “It’s like you’re not allowed to say anything bad about Paris.”  We concluded it probably has more to do with people wanting to cling to romantic notions, but it can be frustrating.  As I’m sure it was for Daria, when she moves to the United States and doesn’t find everything to be as shiny and wonderful as she had expected.  Her pride, I think, prevents her from voicing too many of her disappointments, but she also doesn’t want to sully the golden image of America for her friends and family back home.

And then there are the sexual politics.  Is marrying for a green card really all that different from using sex to get a job?  At what point does “matchmaking” veer into prostitution?  Where do love and passion fit into marriage and family?

As thought-provoking as it is, it must be noted that Moonlight in Odessa is also a really fun read.  The characters are complex and interesting, and they continue to develop throughout the novel.  There is romance, frustration, joy, and heartbreak, and for any language geeks out there (like myself) there is a lot of great wordplay.

But wait!  There’s more!  Janet has generously offered to give a copy of Moonlight in Odessa to one of my readers, anywhere in the world!  If you want to win it, just leave a comment on this post.  You can share your experiences with culture shock or surprise, if you want.  I’ll choose a winner at random next Wednesday, November 3rd, at 8:00pm Paris time.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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18 responses

30 10 2010
Fiona at Life on Nanchang Lu

Camille, this is beautifully written. You need to write book reviews for some publication…it really made me want to read it. And you’re very right about the difficulties in living through the downsides of the expat life, when everyone back home thinks it must be a dream come true. There are ugly and beautiful sides to every city, and on different days the balance tips in different directions. Today, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and I’m heading off on my bike to the Ghost market (an antique market -nothing to do with Halloween!) and Shanghai looks good, really good. But that’s just today.

Very thought-provoking, thank you.

30 10 2010
Hannah

I loved this post, Camille, and can’t help crossing my fingers for more book reviews from you in the future! :D I’ve been too nervous to talk about books on my blog, as I’m terrified of recommending books I love in case other people don’t like them and then think less of me for it… (I know this is kinda silly, but I can’t help it!)

This sounds like a wonderful book, and I love that Janet opted for a novel rather than a memoir (though, by the sounds of it, a memoir would be fascinating too!). I’ve only really read about Russia via Tolstoy, so it’d be fun to read something contemporary!

30 10 2010
Tiffany

What a lovely post, and like someone said above, I too have only read Russian books through Tolstoy’s eyes, my dream is to one day travel to Russia and to experience the Trans Siberian railway. x

30 10 2010
ksam

Thanks for the review – I’ve been hearing a lot about this book lately, and it’s nice to know a little bit more about it.

30 10 2010
Anne

The buzz on this book keeps buzzing. I’m definitely curious!

31 10 2010
Hopie

Sounds like a great book! I’m sending this article to my sister who’s studying Russian in college and is a wonderful (fiction) writer ;-)

31 10 2010
croquecamille

Fiona – Thank you so much! I’m beaming. And whether or not it has anything to do with Halloween, it’s the perfect weekend to go to the Ghost market!

Hannah – Come on, I’d love to hear the Wayfaring Chocolate take on books.

Tiffany – That sure sounds like an adventure!

ksam – My pleasure.

Anne – It’s with good reason.

Hopie – Great! Maybe she’ll write her own novel one day…

31 10 2010
Hopie

She’s already written about five ;-) She participates in National Novel Writing month every Nov. and is about to start again. But she says none are publishable for the moment. Then again she’s 19, so she has time to hone her skills!

31 10 2010
Jeanne

Excellent review! The book sounds like a great read and your review is so well-written. I have always wanted to try living in another country but haven’t had the opportunity yet. I can imagine that it would be a big adjustment!

31 10 2010
Francy McAllister

Great review of the book and many of your views are shared by my book club. MOONLIGHT IN ODESSA is not as dark as other Russian books I’ve read so it’s refreshing to get your views as well. Especially like the fact that Ms. Charles is a fellow Montanan.

1 11 2010
croquecamille

Hopie – That’s so great! I hope to read her work someday.

Jeanne – Thank you! Living abroad is pretty much a daily adventure.

Francy – Thanks for your comment. It’s always interesting to find out what other people think of works you’ve read.

2 11 2010
Wendy

One of my best friends is the offspring of a ‘picture’ bride – a wife chosen from photos of young single Chinese women. It would be interesting to read the related stories in this book.

Language is truly one of my greatest interests, too. And I would love to read the food references in this book. :-) Hurry up Wednesday at 8:00 pm Paris time!

2 11 2010
Ann

I’ve already read and enjoyed Moonlight in Odessa, but I would love to give a copy to a friend. Janet is talented FUNNY writer and friend and I’m so happy to see her book featured here.

2 11 2010
croquecamille

Wendy – Sounds like you would really like this book!

Ann – I agree!

3 11 2010
Patricia

Looks like I just made it! The book sounds really good, hope I get to read it :)

3 11 2010
Laney

Hi, and I’m Hope’s younger sister, just squeaking in under the deadline! This book sounds fantastic, and yes, I love both Russian and writing fiction. Thanks for the review!

3 11 2010
croquecamille

And the winner is… Hannah! Congratulations, my dear. I’ll get in touch with you soon to arrange delivery of your prize.

Patricia -The good news is, you still can! :)

Laney – Hey, you’re welcome!

24 12 2010
kiev

nice article thanks !!




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