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.