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The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

by Alina Bronsky

From the first page of this book, we know we are not supposed to like Rosalinda Achmetowna, the conniving Tatar matriarch and relentlessly unreliable narrator of Bronsky’s new novel. And yet, somehow, Rosa’s evil streak is lovable, her self-deception endearing, as in her repeated protestations that she “only wants what is best for everyone.” Which of course means she has a new scheme afoot.

In one interview, author Alina Bronsky remarked that “Most readers understand very quickly who Rosa is. She is obviously not very nice, but she tries to be. I had expected people to hate her. To my great surprise lots of readers love her, even if they are aware of all her tricks.”

Indeed, Hottest Dishes is a disturbingly entertaining story of the untidy lives of three women (mother, daughter, granddaughter) set against the backdrop of a rapidly disintegrating country. Men, meanwhile, are incidental to Rosa’s narrative – just bothersome outsiders that are useful to have around from time to time, provided they are suitably docile or provide a sound stepping stone to the achievement of Rosa’s ends – to craft a better life for herself, her granddaughter and her daughter, in that order.

While the novel’s story line is compelling, it is Rosa’s narrative voice that will seduce you. Every few dozen pages she comes out with a line that makes you laugh out loud:

"I listened to him – I knew how a wife had to behave. the most important thing was not to point out to the husband what stupid things he said. A woman’s tolerance in this area was key to a stable marriage."

"I had always tried to make up for the failings of others, whether through advice, action or my own good will. That’s a notoriously thankless job."

Convinced that she is the only glue holding her family’s life together, the only surety that will give her granddaughter anything like a normal life, Rosa schemes her hapless daughter through an abortion, a series of loveless marriages and emigration. All the while, as disasters mount, she repeatedly assures us that her fine figure, excellent education, perfect Russian, superior cleanliness and personal fortitude will save the day. And then, when she finally thinks she has things sorted out, things take a turn even she could not have anticipated.

In the end, Rosa finds that the only life she can have some semblance of control over is her own. And that just barely.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2011