Various Pets Alive & Dead by Marina Lewycka
Their twenty years of commune life didn't turn out as reaffirming as Marcus and Doro had hoped it would be, so maybe it is time to conform and get married. This isn't news their children ever expected to get, but neither Clara nor Serge are into their parent's radical lifestyle anymore. Clara is a teacher who is still idealistic, but quickly got used to the creature comforts living above the poverty line affords. Serge, on the other hand, is making lots of money applying his genius in math to the world of banking, but paranoid his parents will find out he's stopped working on his PhD. To top it off, Oolie-Anna's social worker wants to move her into a sheltered housing project for Down syndrome adults. Nothing is staying the same, but maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.
One thing you can count on in a Marina Lewycka novel is a fascinating cast of characters and their getting into some kind of trouble. Usually she makes sure they don't get involved in anything criminal, only caught up in sticky and uncomfortable situations. Lewycka also generously peppers her characters with all sorts of easily relatable flaws. Of course, this combination is the classic basis for a good comic novel, and on that count, Lewycka certainly doesn't disappoint with this latest novel, with a couple of small exceptions.
Before I discuss those specific exceptions, you should know this novel is also somewhat of a departure from Lewycka's previous works. Her first two novels (A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and Two Caravans) centered on different types of immigrants and migrants, their reasons for coming to Britain (both temporarily and permanently) and the problems they encountered in their interactions with other immigrants and migrants, as well as with the veteran residents. Her last novel, We are all made of Glue, still involved some foreign nationals and first-generation immigrants, but took a step back from them by having the main protagonist's roots more historically British.
While this theme still comes into play here, it is much more concentrated, with only Serge having contact with foreign nationals, those being several coworkers at his financial institution. While his involvement with (and detachment from) them is an important part of his story, this seems secondary to the mixed feelings he has about his growing wealth in light of his communist upbringing. In fact, some of the things that Lewycka has Serge's boss spout make one wonder if such financial moguls aren't actually mentally unstable, in addition to their boundless greed. With this, Lewycka takes a staunch moral stand against the banking industry's machinations that led to the financial crisis of 2007-8. At the other end of the scale, her descriptions of life on the commune also insert some very biting criticisms of communism and/or socialism. These are the exceptions I mentioned above, and are the only parts of this novel that are actually less than funny. While Lewycka never shied away from putting her opinions into her previous novels, here she seems more damning than before.
Lewycka also changed her voice in this novel. Instead of writing in first-person, this one has multiple third person narratives. To do this, Lewycka devotes each chapter to one of the three main characters of the central family - Doro, Serge and Clara, with only the final chapter highlighting Marcus. Although this somewhat depersonalizes the story, the advantage is the omnipresent narrator is more objective, and can thereby point out the absurdities, which adds to the wit and plays up the satire. At the same time, the added commentary that this voice allows helps us identify with each of the character's various weaknesses and that endears them to us, which can only be a good thing.
As a whole, I truly enjoyed this book. Each of the main characters had something about them that seemed real and vivid. Regarding the lessons Lewycka has put into this story, while I happen to agree with her appraisal of rampant capitalism, I'm not sure she should have taken this as far as she did. I'm also not convinced that her commune is an accurate depiction of communism. That said, I don't think either of these inclusions detract too much from the story. It is still lots of fun and just the type of escapism and honest humor that we've come to expect from Lewycka. For this, I'll give it four and a half stars out of five.