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The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is the funniest book that I've read this year. While this novel is certainly eventful, the best and most appealing element of this novel is the voice. Holy cannoli, can Alina Bronsky write a character that pops off the page. We see the world from Rosalinda Achmetowna's point of view. And boy, what she sees and who she has to deal with leaves much to be desired. And that she spares no one, not even her daughter Sulfia, will have you rolling on the floor. Can you blame her? Sulfia's unattractive, dull-witted, and utterly useless. Don't get her started on her husband Kolganow.
But they're her family so she does what she has to to survive.
On Sulfia, her only child:
I had heard that goat's milk made you strong and healthy, and Sulfia was so scrawny.
Every morning and every evening Sulfia got a glass of freshly milked goat's milk. Obviously boiled, because everything out here was full of germs. I boiled it myself using a cast-iron cauldron built into their earthen stove. Sulfia made a rueful face whenever she saw the full cup. She didn't like the taste. I told her it was a vaccination against stupidity. Sulfia sniffed the cup, disgusted, unhappy. She looked at me. My gaze was enough to make other people jump out of a window. So it was child's play to make Sulfia drink her goat's milk. The first time she gulped it down. Then she grabbed her stomach. When you drank it so quickly, naturally you got a stomache ache. Sulfia's pathetic expression drove me nuts. Then she suddenly put her hands over her mouth, ran out, and threw up into the raspberry patch outside. She was a brave little girl and would never have made a mess on the floor. After she had regurgitated the goat's milk, I gave her a second cup and made sure she drank it very slowly. I'm not sure she would have survived to school age without this milk. I sacrificed myself for her betterment.
I myself didn't drink any goat's milk. I did taste it once out of curiosity, after Sulfia complained about its bitterness--she never complained about things otherwise. I took a sip and instantly dashed out to the raspberry bushes. Yes, this milk was not enjoyable stuff, and I was happy I wasn't the one who had to drink it.
So get to the point already: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is set in the 1970s in the Soviet Union. At the opening of the novel, we learn that anthrax spores have leaked from a lab and that Rosa's daughter Sulfia is pregnant. Rosa doesn't think much of her daughter. She uses a few natural methods to abort the child--who was purportedly conceived because Sulfia dreamt about a man--before their flatmate Klavdia, who works at a birthing center, volunteers to take care of it. It appears that she's successful until Sulfia shows clear signs of pregnancy.
"Must have been twins," Klavdia said, shrugging her shoulders. "So what?"
To her surprise, Rosa finds in her newborn granddaughter Aminat all that was lacking in Sulfia. And she intends to raise this child right, despite Sulfia's inability to do anything. So we follow Rosa, Aminat, and Sulfia--Kolganow pops up here and there but this book is about the women--through lean times, through extra-marital affairs (Rosa's and Kolganow's), through failed marriages (Sulfia's) to Germany, where they shack up with Sulfia's former patient, a German cookbook writer who fell sick in the Soviet Union while researching Tartar cuisine but had, through some scheming on Rosa's part, brought the women to live with him.
I don't want to leave you with the impression that this is all laughs. There are glimpses of a different reality--in Aminat's sad childhood and the social/political landscape that serves as a backdrop to the story--that peek through Rosa's cutting remarks. She had no choice, at least in her way of thinking.
I mini-raved about this book on its release date and I'll rave again. This book is my favorite read of the year and it will appeal to those of you looking for a refreshing read with a wickedly funny protagonist who you'll love to hate. I cannot wait to see what Alina Bronsky has planned, though I won't ask her about if I ever see her in person. In the meantime, I'm glad that I have her first novel, Broken Glass Park, to turn to while I wait.