Review: Russian Tattoo

Posted 26 December, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 2 Comments

Russian Tattoo
By: Elena Gorokhova
Format/Source: Advanced Reading Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster CA

In A Mountain of Crumbs Elena Gorokhova describes coming of age behind the Iron Curtain and leaving her mother and her Motherland for a new life in the United States. Now, in Russian Tattoo, Elena learns that the journey of an immigrant is filled with everyday mistakes, small humiliations, and a loss of dignity. Cultural disorientation comes in the form of not knowing how to eat a hamburger, buy a pair of shoes, or catch a bus. But through perseverance and resilience, Elena gradually adapts to her new country. With the simultaneous birth of her daughter and the arrival of her Soviet mother, who comes to the US to help care for her granddaughter and stays for twenty-four years, it becomes the story of a unique balancing act and a family struggle.

Russian Tattoo is a poignant memoir of three generations of strong women with very different cultural values, all living under the same roof and battling for control. Themes of separation and loss, grief and struggle, and power and powerlessness run throughout this story of growing understanding and, finally, redemption. “Gorokhova writes about her life with a novelist’s gift,” says The New York Times, and her latest offering is filled with empathy, insight, and humor.

I read her first memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs (review) a few years ago and really enjoyed it. So naturally I was excited when I learned that she was coming out with another memoir, this time focusing on her life in North America. This book will be available on 6 January 2015.

Russian Tattoo is an interesting continuation to A Mountain of Crumbs, picking up where the first volume left off with her travelling to the United States to start her new life. I appreciated some of the recaps of events from the first memoir as it has been two years since I read the first book. This book covers her experiences in America and is very much the immigrant’s experience; it’s not just the culture shock and the lifestyle differences she’s faced with but an entire ideology and character that she’s never faced before. As a result, she finds herself contrasting the things she encounters in America with the things she knows growing up in Soviet Russia.

And as an added irony, she finds herself frequently remembering the things her mother likes to quote and say depending on the situation, which she finds strange given everything she’s done was to separate herself from her mother. Thus in many ways this book is a fascinating meditation about relationships between mothers and daughters, as she finds herself bridged between her mother and her equally-strong-willed daughter. I admit, reading the accounts of her daughter growing up was a little aggravating as she rebelled in some typical, extreme, youthful fashion, probably because I found myself as bewildered of her actions as her parents. Nonetheless, some of the thoughts that Elena came to in the latter half of the book were interestin food for thought.

I also felt for Elena in the earlier part of the book and her time married to Robert as she found herself alone and isolated in America and the man she married just had no concept of what she was going through and was of no help to her. She is clearly happier with Andy and I was glad when she found some happiness amidst all of the changes in her life.

There’s quite a number of time jumps as Elena focuses on key moments in her life in America, but the contrasts are interesting as she progresses through the 80s, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and into the 90s. I really enjoyed reading her second memoir, I couldn’t put it down once I started reading it. I highly recommend this book, including the first volume.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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2 Responses to “Review: Russian Tattoo”

  1. I haven’t heard of Elena Gorokhova’s work before but I just previewed A Mountain of Crumbs on Amazon and it looks really good, so I think I’m going to check these out 🙂 it’s always so interesting reading about someone’s experience going from one country to another!

    • I hope you enjoy reading A Mountain of Crumbs! It was a really interesting account of life growing up in Soviet Russia leading up to her opportunity to leave (and then Russian Tattoo focuses on adapting to life in a new country) 🙂

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