Moonlight in Odessa is Janet Skeslien Charles' debut novel, and a sensational one at that. I had won a copy of this novel during Fall 2010 after participating in a blog giveaway, but ended up packing it away for 3 years while I spent time traveling. After having settled down for a bit and unpacked boxes of books, I found myself drawn to this book's synopsis. Once I started reading Moonlight in Odessa, I was addicted.
Daria is the oldest 23-year-old you'll ever meet. Growing up in modern Ukraine post-perestroika, Daria has committed herself to learning fluent English and IT computer skills so she can have a professional advantage over her desperate Ukrainian peers. However, despite her hard work and superior office skills, Daria only makes enough money to support her and her grandmother, with whom she shares a tiny apartment just outside the busy Odessa city limits.
Dedicated to keeping her well-paying job (well-paying by Odessa standards) at an Israeli shipping company, Daria politely and discreetly refuses the barrage of sexual advances made by her boss, Mr. Harmon. Also refusing to have ties with the Ukraine mafia, Daria tries to stave off (but fails miserably) her attraction to the powerful and sexy mafia leader Vladimir "Vlad" Stanislavski.
Thinking that blowing off Mr. Harmon's sexual advances will eventually leave her without a job, Daria begins moonlighting at a matchmaking mail-order bride company called Soviet Unions - a company that pairs American men with Ukraine women. When Daria begins translating English for her clients, she meets a kind, loving man named Tristan who promises that he can fulfill her dreams of going to America if only she marries him and leaves her life in Ukraine behind for good.
At first glance, Moonlight in Odessa sounds like a light, romantic, happy-ending romp to while away a summer weekend. Even the book's cover deceptively promises rainbows and happily-ever-after. But guess again - this novel is NOT HAPPY! Well, okay, so it IS, but not in the cotton-candy way you might expect.
First of all, you'll be drawn to the story as a result of the laid-back (yet very educational) presentation by Daria on Ukraine life and culture. Before I read Moonlight in Odessa, I'll shamefully admit I knew NOTHING about contemporary Ukraine culture and the effects perestroika had had on the economy. I'm disgusted that with all the public education I've ever received in my life, I've never had the pleasure of learning about cultures in other countries. The information Daria divulges about Ukraine culture is shocking, yet fascinating; devastating, yet awe-inspiring.
For the first few chapters of Moonlight in Odessa, I didn't care about Daria and her love-life. The romance factor is not what drove me to keep reading this book. Instead, I was more interested in learning about Odessan culture and about Daria's lifestyle in Ukraine.
The novel picks up in pace significantly when Daria moves to America. Her relationship with Tristan is gut-wrenching and painful to read about, and it's not hard to sympathize with Daria, especially given her true and honest intentions regarding love and marriage.
Even as I write this review, I'm still pondering whether or not I am satisfied with Daria's outcome and "happy ending." Daria's character is so genuine, smart, honest, and good that I wanted her to have the moon. I guess the ending of Moonlight in Odessa goes to show that life is never perfect - even in fiction.
The amusing parts of Moonlight in Odessa were Daria's numerous pokes and jabs about American culture - especially the diet and obesity references. Oh, Charles, you had me cracking up. I can only imagine what other countries and cultures say behind our backs about our obesity epidemic and the way Americans thrive on junky, processed food as opposed to fruits and vegetables. I absolutely loved any comments Daria had about this particular topic.
If you're looking for some light "chick-lit" fun, Moonlight in Odessa will probably be a bit too heavy for you. On the other hand, if you want to read a tasteful, unique, and very educational story about the hard lives women in some countries lead, then you better read Moonlight in Odessa for a fresh outtake on life.
You might also want to try Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky, The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka, and Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.
Click on any of the images of the books below to review them in more detail on Amazon.com.
Have you ever read a novel about a foreign culture that completely fascinated you? If so, let us know in the comments section below!