Monday, September 28, 2009

Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles - 352 pgs

Book CoverDaria is a young woman living an oppressive life in Ukraine, where the economy is so poor that most people struggle to survive. Though she has a stable and well paying job as a secretary, her future seems uncertain; she worries that her boss, Mr. Harmon, will fire her after she refuses his sexual advances. In order to keep him at bay, she decides to set him up with a long-time friend, who immediately latches onto the man and then strangely turns on Daria. In fear for her job, Daria begins to moonlight as an interpreter for a Russian/American dating site that connects lonely American bachelors with eligible Ukrainian women. As she becomes more involved in her off-hours job, she constantly wonders if true love will ever come her way and questions whether her only opportunity will be with Vlad, the Russian mobster who relentlessly pursues her. After months of contemplation, Daria begins corresponding with a man from the U.S. and starts to dream of a future in America. But taking the plunge and leaving her friends, family and country behind is quite a big step, and one that might carry consequences that she doesn't expect. Soon Daria is leading a very different sort of life, but underneath it all she finds herself still asking the same questions about her future. Both smart and captivating, this is a tale of the the industry of modern love and a woman caught in the middle of it all.

I found that I really enjoyed this book. From the moment I started reading about Daria, I found that she was very different from your typical protagonist and that this was far from your average tale. First of all I found the main character to be very well defined and three dimensional, and I thought her personality had a lot of verve. She was both classy and intelligent and had a great independence and jocularity about her that I found appealing. I also found the supporting characters to be well fleshed out and I ended up feeling very strongly for all of them, albeit in different ways. I think that part of the reason this book worked so well for me was because it was impossible for me not to root for Daria and become invested in the situations she faced. Her plight was uncommon, which is another thing that drew me into the story, and I was constantly wondering how she was going to handle the next curve ball that life threw her.

The plot was very fast paced During the first half of the book; although there weren't very many shifts of scene, there was a lot going on and a lot to get absorbed in. By the second half of the book, the pace had slowed down a bit. Without giving too much away, I can only say that a shift took place in Daria's personality during the second half of the book and I was bit torn as to how to feel about it. She seemed somewhat less decisive and I got a little weary of her waffling back and forth in her attempts to resolve her problems. Although I recognized that she was reacting to her changed circumstances and it seemed genuine and believable, it did get a bit tedious.

I think the most interesting part of this book was the light that it shone on the Russian mail order bride industry. There was a complex web of complicity between these people and often it was unclear who was deceiving who. Most of the women seemed to look at marriage to an American man as a ticket to stability and family, though some were only moved by the desire to obtain a green card and have access to greater amounts of money. The men formed two camps as well: the ones who thought they were going to get a subservient woman who had to completely rely on them, and the ones who went into the venture hoping to make a real connection. It was interesting to see that bad intentions could litter both sides of this transaction, and though it was usually the men who were being deceptive, the issue wasn't starkly black and white.

I also enjoyed all the cultural detail in the book and felt that through the clever impregnation of the narrative, there was actually a lot of information about Ukraine imparted. I came to the book with limited knowledge about the impoverishment of this area of Russia but it was made very clear to me what it would have been like to live in a place where food was scare and luxuries were almost non-existent. From the dismal monthly sum the pensioners received from the government on which they had to survive to the daily utilities blackouts, the book gave a very clear picture of what it must be like to survive day after day in this area of the world.

It also highlighted in detail the reasons that women in this part of the world would go to such extremes to marry a man that in some cases could not even communicate with them. For them, the promises of America must have been too great to ignore, the opportunity to escape too strong. In a examination not often seen, the book also explored the lives of the women who left their native homes and just how difficult survival in their new surroundings could be. Most were alienated and found they had a crippling dependence on the men who made their escape possible. Most were very unhappy and found that the lives they were living bore no resemblance to the lives they had hoped for. Reading about it was revealing, but also cautionary.

I ended up really enjoying the conclusion of this story as well. I hadn't been expecting it, but it was what I hoped for and it was the ending that I would have written, had I penned this book. I closed the book feeling satisfied that the tale had been given a fitting and worthy ending and that Daria had finally gotten what she truly deserved.

This was a much more emotionally complex read than I had expected when I first opened the book. Though there were many light and funny moments, I think the author did a great job of examining some difficult issues, and I really enjoyed the exposure to a culture so different from my own. I also think that the book gave me a more healthy appreciation for all the little things I take for granted in my daily life and for all the little luxuries that I never even think about. I think this book would be great for a wide audience and that it would really be enjoyed by those with a hunger for information on on life in Ukraine or those who want to get a better idea about the logistics of the mail order bride phenomenon. A very interesting read. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I was excited by the cover of this one and reviews seem pretty good as well. Thanks for yours

Suko said...

Thanks for a very interesting review of this book. I know next to nothing about the Russian mail order bride industry. Moonlight in Odessa sounds quite intriguing and educational.

bermudaonion said...

I am fascinated with Russia for some strange reason and I think this book sounds fascinating because of that.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

BTW....I agree with the comment you left...Love the name Halldor Laxness. I can't believ you have this book as well; I have not heard this one talked about much. ENJOY. Thanks for all the great comments too.

Elizabeth said...

I've been interested in this book - I watched a documentary about Russian mail order brides, so it's a topic that intrigues me. I'm glad to hear it's a good read!

Lenore Appelhans said...

This is a subject I am very interested in and this book has been on my wishlist for awhile, so it's great to see that you liked it so much!!

Ana S. said...

Like Kathy, I find Russia fascinating - all of Eastern Europe, really - so I'll have to keep an eye out for this!

Marie Cloutier said...

Thanks- great review. I have Moonlight on my tbr shelf as well and really need to read it. I love books about the former soviet republics and think that this is going to be right up my alley.

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