Elena Gorokhova follows up her memoir A Mountain of Crumbs with the story of her early life in America. From not knowing how to eat a hamburger to being overwhelmed by the wide range of choices at the grocery, her experience may strike a chord with readers who have moved to new countries themselves.
It certainly struck a chord with me — I fortunately never felt as confused by my new home as Gorokhova did, but I do remember having to learn things that my friends took as general knowledge. How to ride a bus and request a stop, for example. Or what a double double was (coffee with two creams and two sugars, for non-Canadian readers). Most of all, I remembered my mother, so confident and fluent in English back home, uncertain about how good her English sounded in her new country. Gorokhova’s story brought these memories to the fore, especially when she wanted a job teaching English as she did in Russia, only American English was different from the one she grew up with.
Russian Tattoo goes beyond Gorokhova’s adapting to America — even after she finds her footing, she has to learn how to deal with her new family and the arrival of her mother, whom she left Russia to escape. At one point, her husband tells her she needs to stop wishing for a new hand of cards and just work with the one she’s been dealt. Gorokhova’s response, that getting dealt a new hand altogether was her reason for leaving Russia in the first place, strikes a chord. Indeed, with all the changes you bring into your life, there are things you just can’t escape. Gorokhova herself realizes this later on when, raising her own daughter, she finds herself turning into the mother she tried so hard to escape.
The writing snags a bit in the episode with her brother-in-law fairly late in the book. While heartfelt and beautifully written, the brother-in-law is introduced such a short time before a significant revelation that I had to flip back a few pages to make sure I hadn’t missed this character earlier on. I understand that this mirrors Gorokhova’s experience — she too barely knew her brother-in-law at that point — but for a reader, it took away some of the impact. Overall, a beautifully written, moving glimpse into a family — three generations of women dealing with different cultural values and backgrounds and with each other.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.