Marina Lewycka’s first novel is a charming, funny and thoughtful gem of a book. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian riffs on themes that are going to stay topical for a long time to come, namely issues of immigration and aging. The story is simple, deceptively so: Pappa, in his eighties and two years a widower, has fallen in love with Valentina, a Ukrainian woman fifty years his junior. Valentina has large breasts and a penchant for “green satin bras.” Pappa has been rejuvenated by love-cum-lust, but his two daughters, Vera and Nadezhda, recognize a con-woman’s spell at work. Pappa and his wife came to England from Ukraine after World War Two where they raised their daughters; now Valentina wants to immigrate with her son—but she needs a visa, and marrying Pappa is her ticket to life in the “rich” West.
The resulting conflict between the daughters, Valentina the scammer, and Pappa is both hilarious and touching. Nadezhda, our leftist narrator, is a sociology professor who wrestles with her own conflict: she is certain Valentina is on the make but also wants her father to be happy. Nadezhda is in conflict with her sister, Vera, the cynical “divorce expert,” who does everything she can to bar Valentina from what little money Pappa has. The sisters, as Nadezhda says, “grew up in the same house but lived in different countries.” For his part, Pappa is deliriously happy, as Valentina and her son move into his modest home and feed him “boil in the bag” meals. But things quickly turn sour: Valentina wants a car and buys a Range Rover that is soon dubbed “crap car,” the sisters suspect Valentina is having at least one affair with younger men, and her son, “the genius,” turns out to be a mediocre student whose private education is soaking up Pappa’s meager pension.
What ensues is a battle of wits: the daughters try to get rid of Valentina while Valentina tries to manipulate the situation so she can stay in England. Pappa, meanwhile, writes his history of the tractor, an agricultural opus that takes us on a fascinating trip down memory lane.
Apparently a number of critics find this novel to be “Viagra comedy” but they must not have actually read it; in fact, there isn’t a single mention of Viagra (or anything of the sort: Pappa’s “squishy-squashy” is consistently “flippy-floppy”) in the book. Rather, A Short History is precisely what the title advertises: an excursus on Ukrainian history and the trauma that brought Nadezhda’s family to England. There’s a profundity at work here that may be too subtle for some: Lewycka is so far from pedantic, and her prose so mellifluous, that blockbuster-jaded readers might be lulled into a false sense of banality. The premise is banal, but the juxtaposition of, for instance, Nadezhda making soup with Pappa recalling life in a concentration camp is exquisite. The comedy is primarily in Pappa’s heavily accented speech—which Lewycka lovingly captures through syntax, avoiding, for the most part, the cheap trick of spelling—and his amazing ability to detour around the obvious in favor of his fantasy (agricultured) world.
Lewycka is a compelling writer, keen of ear and sharp of eye, who layers events and dialogue in a natural way that provoke potent philosophical and political insights. Perhaps what is most admirable about this novel, and hopefully so attractive to a Boomer audience, is her compassionate but cuttingly honest portrayal of old age. This is most welcome in a culture that, even as it ages, maintains a self-loathing cult of youth. Here’s to “tractors and boobs” and to looking forward to Lewycka’s next novel.