Alta Ifland, "The Wife Who Wasn't" (New Europe Books, 2021)


An exhilaratingly comical, crosscultural debut novel, The Wife Who Wasn't (New Europe Books, 2021) brings together an eccentric community from the hills of Santa Barbara, California, and a family of Russians from Chișinău, the capital of Moldova. It starts in the late 1990s, after the fall of communism, and has at its center the mail-order marriage between a California man (Sammy) and a Russian woman (Tania) who comes to America, which engenders a series of hilarious cultural misunderstandings.

The novel's four parts take place alternately in California and Moldova, and comprise short chapters whose point of view moves seamlessly between that of the omniscient narrator and that of various characters. Delivered in arresting prose, both realities--late 90s, bohemian/hipster California and postcommunist Moldova--thus come together from opposite points of view.

Above all, this novel is a comedy of manners that depicts the cultural (and personality) clash between Tania and Sammy, Anna (Sammy's teenage daughter) and Irina, and Bill (Sammy's neighbor) and Serioja (Tania's brother). It is also a comedy of errors in the tradition of playful, multiple love triangles. The novel reaches a shocking climax involving a stolen Egon Schiele painting and alluding to the real history of East Mountain Drive, whose bohemian community was destroyed in the 2008 "Tea Fire."

A literary tour de force and a rollicking satire of both suburban America and urban Eastern Europe, is a must for fans of Gary Schteyngart (The Russian Debutante's Handbook), Keith Gessen (A Terrible Country), and Lara Vapnyar (Divide Me By Zero)

Alta Ifland was born and grew up in Communist Romania. She came as a political refugee to the US in 1991 and, after a PhD in French language and literature, she taught for a brief period in academia, then started to work as book reviewer, a writer in her third language (English) and an occasional literary translator from/into Romanian, French and English. She is the author of two collections of prose poems, Voix de glace/Voice of ice (Les Figues Press, 2007), bilingual and self-translated from French, and The Snail’s Song (Spuyten Duyvil, 2011), as well as two books of short stories, Elegy for a Fabulous World (Ninebark Press, 2009), and Death-in-a-Box (Subito Press, 2010). With Eireene Nealand she has translated from French the recent novel by Marguerite Duras, The Darkroom (Contra Mundum Press, 2021).

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Steven Seegel is Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

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