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17 November 2018

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Russian Tattoo

By Elena Gorokhova (Simon and Schuster, $26, Jan. 2015)

This new memoir more or less picks up where Gorokhova’s bestselling first memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs, left off, with her leaving the Soviet Union in 1980 to enter into an “open” marriage with an American man she did not love.

“Why are there no smells?” in America, she wonders early on, recalling the odors of sour milk and dusky sweat that pervaded her homeland. This is the least of her worries, of course, as she navigates all the difficulties of joining a new culture, from working as a waitress (with no idea what dressing “on the side” means) to teaching English, from divorcing her difficult first husband, to raising a child in a land she barely understands.

Gorokhova’s engaging style draws you in. Self-effacing and candid, yet also deeply observant and as powerfully descriptive as a novel, Russian Tattoo is that rare book written by an immigrant that helps a native understand their country better, seeing it from the peeled-back perspective of a newcomer. Yet her perspective on Russia (“everyone was a guard of what they could access, and everyone used what they guarded to their advantage”) is as trenchant as her observations on being a mother and a daughter, while being sucked back into the orbit of the mother she fled Leningrad to escape.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2014