Imagine Sophia from The Golden Girls in Soviet Russia – spewing insults, exaggerating her own worth, bemoaning the state of things. Instead of being surround by three salty dames who deflect her barbs with their own, she’s surrounded by a husband, daughter, and granddaughter whose will to live she has methodically trampled. Such is Rosalinda, or “Rosa,” the narrator of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.
The book opens with Rosa’s daughter Sulfia telling her mother that she’s pregnant, while Rosa points out that she’s stupid, ugly, and has bad posture. Rosa’s emotional and verbal abuse of Sulfia is her main source of personal expression throughout the novel, when she’s not heaping praise upon herself. She’s extremely proud of her shapely legs, her shiny hair, her skill with make-up, and her personal comportment. “I stood up elegantly,” she says while describing her visit to a rich home, “Not everyone had the ability to gracefully extricate oneself from a soft chair. But I did.”
Despite her inflated view of herself, she is quite a capable woman. In Soviet Russia, where the smallest errands required bribes, back-room deals, or standing in hour-long lines, she usually gets what she wants. She gets her granddaughter out of trouble, finds apartments in the government-run housing system, and all but blackmails men into dating her daughter. This manic survivalist instinct carries over into her personal life, where her constant barrage of criticism toward her family is, in her mind, part of her responsibility to make them as flawless as possible. Of course, she mistakes her daughter’s patient, nurturing nature for spinelessness, her husband’s compromising resignation for imbecility, and her granddaughter’s aversion to being pinched and called “little Satan” as misbehavior. She is a piece of work.
Her inability to see herself as the domineering monster mother that she is is the book’s bottomless source of black comedy. She is taken aback when her granddaughter Aminat calls her an “evil grandmother”: “I didn’t look anything like a grandmother at all. I looked good. I was pretty and young looking. You could see that I had vitality and was intelligent. I often had to mask my expression to keep other people from reading my thoughts and stealing my ideas.”
Because she is resourceful and funny, you find yourself liking Rosa, even while a voice at the back of your mind is protesting that she is horrible and a little crazy. Alina Bronsky doesn’t try to justify Rosa’s personality. There is a little description of her early life, and that it was hard, and probably had to do with how she turned out, but not enough to seem like Bronsky is excusing her behavior.
Liking Rosa for her spunk and entertaining inner monologue, despite her treatment of everyone around her, is something that becomes more and more uncomfortable as the novel progresses. At the outset she is a barking but funny housewife, but once she’s driven away her husband, ruined Sulfia’s potential relationships, and tried to kidnap her own granddaughter, I started to waver. Then, when she realizes Sulfia’s German suitor is actually more interested in 12-year-old Aminat, she overlooks it because she is so desperate for him to get the family out of the country. This is where I got off board.
The book raises a lot of questions about intentions. Rosa truly believes that everyone needs her to take care of their lives at every moment. Because of her fundamental usefulness as a bossy woman in a society that requires elbowing people aside, she is right enough of the time to convince herself. If she’s at all aware that her intrusiveness is manipulative, she hides it well. According to her inner logic, she is always acting in the best interest of her family. I found I could rarely fault her motivations, even if I did pity the people in her life.
I even felt proud of her when, late in her life, in a foreign country, she decides to learn how to ski. “I got dressed, took my skis, and went by myself to the lift. I was just as elegant and confident as the arrogant bitches that came here every year and wore mirrored sunglasses pushed up on top of their heads.”
She’s not short on moxie, which makes it harder to choose whether you can like her or not. Thankfully, the book doesn’t ask you to, so you can leave with the guilt-free impression that you just met one of the most fascinating women in the world. And that luckily you never have to meet her in real life.