From: Goodreads First Reads program
In a nutshell:
Sixty-something Valeria is the best gardener and the least liked denizen of her small Hungarian prairie town. An act from her youth set the foundation of Valeria’s outcast status, and she cements her status thanks to her judgmental attitude and mean disposition. One day she unexpectedly falls in love with the village potter, a widower of about her age. He already has a some-time lover in Ibolya, the aging bartender of the slovenly village tavern. The resulting rivalry between the women sets off a comic course of events that will pull in nearly everyone in the village.
I entered to win a giveaway copy of Valeria’s Last Stand based primarily on the book’s setting in post-Communist Hungary. The premise I read (which was more general than the one I gave above) promised a book fresh and different from other new books out there.
Certainly, the book is a departure from my usual fare as I do not frequently read comic novels. Valeria’s Last Stand is also slightly unusual in its focus: it’s all about the older characters who are rediscovering lust and love and carrying on with bawdy affairs. There is a love story involving a young couple, but it’s a subplot.
The first chapter placed the story in the larger context of Hungarian history; I loved that the villagers were still miffed that all of the invading World War II armies completely ignored their hamlet. There is some satire on the effects of capitalism on the traditional village, as the mayor brings in foreign company representatives and the market starts selling produce from around the globe. I had to laugh at Valeria’s reaction to these new market additions:
Valeria wasn’t interested in foreign fruits and vegetables, mostly because she could not grow them, but also because of their blatant sensuality. Tropical fruits were swollen with flesh and juice. They were sticky. They were uninhibited. The first time she held a banana, Valeria was offended.
One thing I liked about Valeria’s Last Stand is that I had no idea where it was going to go with the story. Valeria falls in love with the potter in the first few pages at the market, and the story rocketed from there. Unfortunately, I do not think the book fulfills the promise of its strong beginning. The chimney sweep was a nasty character who I couldn’t find funny at all. Also, the climactic drunken violence – darkly comic as it was in tone – was an unwelcome turn in the story.
Valeria’s Last Stand does have room for some reflective moments, especially as the older characters cast a critical eye on the life they’ve led up to now. They fear loneliness and obsolescence. I wouldn’t say that I was ‘moved’ by these moments personally, but I certainly appreciated the way they grounded the story.
After I finished the book, I looked up information about the author out of curiosity. Marc Fitten’s parents came to the United States from Panama. He grew up in the Bronx and in Atlanta, Georgia. Later in life, he spent some years in Hungary where he met his wife and got the idea for this book. To read more about Fitten, here is link to the Paste article that I found about him: http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2009/05/marc-fitten-old-world-charm.html
I was glad to try something a little different. However, I would characterize my overall feelings on the book as lukewarm: I don’t actively dislike it, but I wouldn’t rate it as a must-read either. I think that other readers may find it more to their taste though. Check out the reviews below for other opinions!
A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “My problem with Valeria’s Last Stand is that characters are too etched to be read as a fable and fairy tale, yet they are not convincing enough to be taken seriously. It’s not believable.”
Booknotes by Lisa – “It reminds me a little of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in that it is funny while also dealing with serious issues.”
The Boston Bibliophile – “I enjoyed the blend of simple narration, iconic characters and an ending in which the good guys get to be happy and the bad guys get their comeuppance.”
Ramya’s Bookshelf – “A light and mildly entertaining read”
S. Krishna’s Books – “In a lot of ways, Valeria is the best part of this book because she is so complicated, yet so well-written.”