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The Boston Bibliophile: "Rosa is a fantastic literary creation."

Date: Mar 28 2011

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Reviewed by The Boston Bibliophile

If you know Alina Bronsky's from her first novel, Broken Glass Park, you might want to know first of all that The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is almost nothing like that dark book. Which is not to say that Hottest Dishes is all sweetness and light, just that it's quite a change of pace. The only thing Hottest Dishes has in common with its predecessor is that it's set in roughly the same milieu, that of ex-Soviets living in Germany.

But before our protagonists make it to Germany we spend some time getting to know them in the crumbling former Soviet Union. Tartar matriarch Rosalinda (Rosa) presides over her daughter, Sulfia and dotes on her granddaughter Aminat; all her life, Rosa has ruled the roost and now that her (in her eyes) feckless daughter has given birth to a daughter of her own, Rosalinda is determined to protect the girl. She even kidnaps the child and tells everyone that Sulfia is mentally ill and a danger to her daughter. Rosa considers Aminat to be her daughter, really, and regards anyone else as a threat and a nuisance. Her one project for Sulfia is to get her married to someone who can move the family out of the country.

We see the entire story through Rosa's distorted, delusional eyes, although the truth creeps through little by little. When the family moves to Germany tragedy replaces comedy as the trio disintegrates. Rosa is a fantastic literary creation, by turns horrific and appalling and even sometimes sympathetic, when the reader can see through the veil of the lies she tells herself. Judgemental, fussy and slow to credit anyone but herself for anything good, she's not an easy woman to like, and since Bronsky writes in the first person from Rosa's point of view, we do spend the entire novel in her head. There were times I wish Bronsky had changed up the point of view for a little fresh air.

But I settled in after not too long. Whatever else you can say about Rosa, she does love her family and I love the ways she changes, and the ways she doesn't, too. Still, I don't think The Hottest Dishes is going to be a book for everyone, and probably a lot of people will find Rosa to be a little much. I enjoy satires and I loved The Hottest Dishes for its tragicomedy and its bittersweet take on immigrant life. I don't know about you but sometimes I'm bored by the relentlessly sentimental type of immigrant stories and this book isn't that! Aminat's fate in particular strikes me as particularly emblematic of modern life, and I would love to read this story again from her perspective. If you don't like painful satire this is not the book for you but if you can come to like an unlikeable woman you'll love The Hottest Dishes.

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