At the end of her luminous 2009 memoir, “A Mountain of Crumbs,” Elena Gorokhova is preparing to leave the Soviet Union for the United States — a country, her mother warns, where “people beg on the streets and sleep under bridges and everyone walks around with a gun.”
Elena is headed to Texas to marry an American academic named Robert, whom she barely knows. She is leaving less for love than to escape her motherland and her mother, both of which, she says in her new memoir, “Russian Tattoo,” are “overbearing and protective, controlling and nurturing.”
She has prepared her whole life for this moment: studied English and become fluent, read American books and watched American movies — those that were allowed in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, anyway. But knowing a country’s language does not mean understanding its culture, and nothing could have prepared her for 1980 Austin, Texas, a hot, dry, confusing place where shoe stores are, alarmingly, filled with shoes of all kinds and grocery stores are stocked to the ceiling with “an infinite number of different brands of frozen pizzas, pasta sauce, and flavored yogurts I never knew existed” and where shop clerks who ask for her Visa apparently do not mean her green card.
“It was easier to shop in Leningrad,” she says. “Lines always led to food available at the moment, eliminating the necessity of making a choice.”
Gorokhova is at her strongest in the first half of the book, where her prose trembles with anxiety and bafflement — not just at the “glimmering glut” of stores and restaurants, but at the fashions, the culture, the bus system, Robert’s demands for an open marriage, the names of drinks. (What, she wonders, is a screwdriver?) These scenes are written fully, laden with emotion.
Eventually, Robert packs Elena off to live with his mother in New Jersey, and at this point the book shifts from a fish-out-of-water tale to a story about the relationship between Elena and her own mother, who arrives from Russia, bringing with her all her old suspicions and traditions, her overbearing ways, her earthy smell of “apples, still unripe; damp dacha linens that survived the winter; the bitter, sticky milk of dandelions.”
A lot of life is crammed into the book’s second half — gone (mostly) are the slow scenes, and, instead, the book zips through time. Elena divorces Robert, marries a man named Andy, has a baby; the baby grows into a defiant young woman (who becomes a vegan and gets a tattoo, making her mother feel, once again, like a fish out of water); Elena travels back to Russia several times; her mother dies. She grows comfortable in the United States, finds her place.
It’s all interesting enough, if somewhat harried. Still, it is only when she is writing about Russia — her homesickness for the place, and her visits there — that Gorokhova’s writing takes on that luminous prose of her first book. Her trips to St. Petersburg are suffused with the “translucent dusk” of white nights, the gray waters of the Gulf of Finland, the glowing golden dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, strawberries and mushrooms in the countryside, the powerful memories of childhood. The life remembered, at times more vivid than the life lived.
Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @StribBooks.