The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky tells the story of three generations of women: Rosalinda (Rosa) Achmetowna; her daughter, Sulfia; and Sulfia’s daughter, Aminat. Their story is told through the voice of Rosa, an unreliable narrator who shares her unvarnished opinions on life, love, marriage, and a host of other issues, including her supposedly good looks and impeccable taste in food and clothes.
Rosa emerges as an unsavory character with a distorted self-image and tyrannical tendencies. Convinced her daughter is too stupid and too ugly to find a husband for herself, Rosa successfully orchestrates the terrain for her. Sulfia marries and divorces twice. Rosa then navigates a third husband for her, a German enthralled by Aminat, Sulfia’s young daughter. Undeterred, Rosa insists he cannot have the one without the other two. Besotted with the young girl, the German agrees to the deal, and the three women move to Germany to live with a man who reluctantly marries Sulfia while obsessing over Aminat.
That is just the tip of the iceberg of Rosa’s devious machinations. Her interference in the life of her daughter and granddaughter has no limits. Convinced she is only doing what is best for them, she hounds them, threatens them, and bullies them into submission. She exploits the weakness of anyone she encounters to further her agenda, resorts to blackmail at the earliest opportunity, maneuvers people like pawns in a chess game, and engages in the most bizarre behaviors.
In spite of her many unsavory qualities, Rosa is enterprising, industrious, and determined to make a better life for herself and her family, no matter the cost. She perceives every obstacle as a challenge. To save herself embarrassment in front of her daughter’s future in-laws, she sets a tablecloth on fire to divert their attention from her husband who has shamelessly fallen asleep on the dinner table. Armed with her stockpile of chocolates and other goodies, she bribes her way to get what she wants. We sympathize with her daily struggles to obtain even the most basic necessities in a communist country. But we also cringe at the ridiculous extremes she goes to in order to advance her agenda.
Rosa’s outrageous behavior and attitude is exaggerated, almost bordering on caricature. This cartoon-like portrayal of Rosa and an ending that is inconclusive weaken an otherwise engaging read.
Recommended with some reservation.