In her debut novel, Janet Skeslien Charles pulls off a couple of feats. First, the Montana native manages to write convincingly like a Ukrainian who’s tackling the English language. Perhaps more impressively, she crams fascinating cultural and historical information into what might otherwise be merely a diverting beach romance. It’s like sneaking vitamins into a chocolate shake.
Moonlight in Odessa is the story of Daria, a smart and feisty young Ukrainian woman who has just landed a job at an Israeli-run shipping firm that pays 10 times better than any comparable job in Odessa. She loves the work; the catch is that her boss can’t stop chasing her around the office trying to get his hands on her. Opting for a none-too-subtle bait-and-switch strategy, Daria introduces her boss to her friend Olga, who has made it plain she’d be happy to have such an admirer. Problem solved, sort of—now Daria has to worry that Olga might take her job.
So Daria takes a second job, just in case: in the evenings, she helps arrange “socials,” dances at which groups of American men come to meet available Odessan girls. These duties lead her into an Internet correspondence with Tristan, a California schoolteacher much older than she is. Both jobs require her to navigate the complicated forest of corruption that is Odessa shortly after perestroika. The local mob king, Vladimir, comes around to collect “protection” money, and to ask Daria out, repeatedly. He’s suave, handsome, rich, persistent and sensitive: before the mafia, he worked as a marine biologist, possibly the most wholesome profession ever invented.
Daria is torn—will her heart lead her to America and Tristan, or is she tied to her beloved Odessa and the passionate Vlad? True, this could be a gooey and overwrought story, but Daria’s sharp humor and keen insights into human nature make her a winning narrator. In fact, all of the characters are well-drawn, complex and interesting, even the initially sleazy boss. It all goes to show that the romantic beach-read formula needn’t be silly, or even formulaic; in the right hands, it can be instructive.
Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.
Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.
When Daria is hired by an international shipping firm with a branch in Odessa, she is immediately informed by her boss, Mr. Harmon, that she is expected to sleep with him. Daria finds a variety of ways to put him off while proving herself highly competent as a translator and clerk, but eventually she hooks up her friend Olga with Harmon. This works a little too well; not only does Harmon not bother her anymore but now he is not sure he needs her in his employ. Desperate, Daria finds a second job working for Valentina's mail-order bride service, where she's expected to translate for the American men who use the service. But Daria also dreams of finding a husband in America and begins emailing Tristan, who lives outside San Francisco. Alas, what Daria finds in the end is not what she expected. VERDICT Charles's first novel vividly contrasts life in Odessa, a city whose citizes are impoverished and sometimes prejudiced but nevertheless proud, with the materialism and isolation of life in America. Good for ambitious readers.--Josh Cohen Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY[Page 84]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
This darkly humorous debut explores the world of eastern European mail-order brides and the men who finance them. Daria, a savvy, warmhearted but standoffish secretary in Odessa, Ukraine, fears that her boss will fire her after she refuses his sexual advances. So to keep him busy (and to keep her job), she sets him up with her shallow friend, Olga, who promptly turns on Daria. Fearing imminent unemployment, Daria takes a second job at Soviet Unions, an Internet dating service that connects Western men with available Ukrainian women. As Daria, who is fluent in English, bridges the language gap between the women and foreign men, she wonders if she will ever find true love. The endearing and forthright Daria is the perfect guide through the trickery and sincerity of chaotic courtships and short-order love. Meanwhile, her own romantic life swirls between a sweet suitor in California, a Ukrainian gangster and her manic boss. The teetering dance between humor and heartbreak burns through this tale that takes place at the intersection of love and money, East and West, male and female. (Sept.)[Page 31]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.