Janet Skeslien Charles’ debut novel, Moonlight In Odessa, introduces a stubborn alternative to the classically male post-Soviet narrative, embodied in Ukrainian linguist and e-mail-order-bride operative Daria Kirilenko. But when Charles reaches the end of her narrative charms, chick-lit cliché melts over her story faster than sour cream dolloped on hot borsht.
Daria’s high-paying job at the Odessa office of an international shipping company lets her support her grandmother, but there’s a price: She has to field the attentions of her lecherous boss while she’s trying to bribe local customs agents. Introducing the boss to her best friend, Olga, puts an end to the advances, until Olga hangs around the office making ridiculous demands of her own. Fearing for her job, Daria picks up part-time work at Soviet Unions, a matchmaking website dedicated to connecting desperate Odessan women with American men who arrive specifically to bride-shop. Her tasks include chaperoning and translating for these newly formed couples, protecting them from the less romantic sentiments of their paths to the altar. Even though a local mobster has caught her eye, Daria allows herself to begin corresponding with a teacher in California, and to be seduced by the idea of starting over as an American wife.
At first, Moonlight In Odessa plays with isolation and nationality, particularly through Daria’s inexact command of English; while not a cut-up like Everything Is Illuminated’s Alex Perchov, she lacks the ability to express her attachment to her home city, which adds dramatic dimension to her life as the city’s limits bring her to despair. But once Daria starts to get invested in the success of Soviet Unions, her trajectory becomes depressingly familiar, and similar to the trajectories of the women who pass through her doors every day. And Charles lets her get away with it, shoving aside the black-humored survivor of the early chapters. When Daria’s adventures in American dating take a serious turn, the narrative uses the cultural awareness so intricately spun out at the beginning for scenes of hand-wringing regret and a clunky reunion that feels like a mechanical afterthought instead of a crossroads. There might be ways to justify Daria’s quick abandonment of the ingenuity that pushed her through the business world back home, but instead, Charles strands her without recourse; the true love she turns out to be seeking is ultimately lost in translation.