Poor Sulfia, 17, lives with Rosa and her father, Kalganow, in a communal apartment somewhere in Russia. Rosa is not above using her considerable charms (she's quite proud of her good looks) to get what she needs for her family, but she cannot believe how pathetic, passive and helpless they are. "I only hoped that her simplemindedness," she says of her daughter, "might prove attractive enough to some man that he wouldn't notice her awful legs until the two of them were already standing in front of a justice of the peace." It's possible you've never met anyone as self-centered and manipulative as Rosa. And you can't stop laughing when her transparent schemes for her family's survival backfire.
No one measures up in Rosa's estimation, until Sulfia's extra large stomach turns out to be an unwanted, unexpected pregnancy. The baby, Aminat, is the love of Rosa's life, the beautiful daughter she never had, her way out of Russia, her hope for the future. To the rest of the world, Aminat is a terror, a spoiled brat, a snotty-nosed urchin.
Her first words are: "When is stupid grandpa coming home from work?"
"I was a good role model for her," thinks Rosa, who never doubts her own brilliance.
Alina Bronsky's brilliance, in this, and in her first novel, "Broken Glass Park," is the perfect distance at which she holds her characters, letting them twist in the wind, so that it becomes almost impossible to know how she wants her readers to feel about them.
Bronsky's plots consist of a series of obstacles — everyday living is a test of her characters' survival skills.
Just when you begin to tire of their cruelty, indifference and narcissism, Bronsky feeds you a little tidbit from their past (Rosa was orphaned in World War II) or exposes their vulnerability. "I had tried to teach her," Rosa says of her maternal style, "that nobody should be able to see when you were scared. That nobody should be able to tell when you were uncertain. That you shouldn't show it when you loved someone. And that you smiled with particular affection at someone you hated." Rosa relies on her Tartar ancestry, the few recipes she knows, when she needs them to charm a man: kvass soup, horse meat sausage, kystbyi, vorschmack, tzimmes, and kullama and sour pickles from her relatives in the Urals.
Bronsky's other great gift is humor. When you aren't horrified that Rosa is practically selling her beloved granddaughter to a German pedophile who professes a fascination for Tartar cuisine so that grandmother, mother and daughter can move to Germany, or destroying her daughter's marriage, or sleeping with men who give her money and gifts, you are laughing at her exaggerated mother-ness. Rosa is a monster, but she is also the only one in her family with any imagination or initiative. When someone is sick, she's the one who feeds them and wills them back to health. When a petty bureaucrat needs flattering, Rosa is your man. So to speak.
This is not irony, or sarcasm or any immediately recognizable form of humor. It strikes me as uniquely Slavic, Eastern European in its sly distance. The characters in this story represent the survival instinct run amok, married to some innately female skill for protecting the loved ones. The skills they display — getting what you want from bureaucrats, working the system, lying remorselessly to get the apartment or the food or the spot in the hospital — prove most valuable in societies in which the small-minded wield a disproportionate amount of power. We laugh at Rosa, but when it comes time to call the insurance company about that bill, it might be nice to have her around.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.