In Eremeeva’s collection of humorous fictional vignettes, an American woman looks back on 20 years living in Russia after marrying her “HRH,” or Handsome (and sometimes Horrible) Russian Husband.
Inspired by romantic, sepia-toned dreams of the doomed Romanovs, Jennifer starts out as a tourist in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, graduating to hosting guided tours and trade delegations. In 1991, she meets “Comrade Smashing,” a military officer: “He had a smile that started in his warm brown eyes and ended at my curled-up toes.” Although she is warned that “Soviet men are impossible,” Jennifer is smitten. The two marry and have a daughter; her husband leaves the military to go into business, and she becomes head of public relations and marketing at a large bank. With the couple doing well in the post-Soviet economy, Jennifer quits her job to write a book much like this one: its topics include home furnishings, food, expatriate life, dachas (country cottages owned by Russians), hospitality, and Russia’s new rich. Eremeeva’s debut is often laugh-out-loud funny; for example, while arguing with HRH about medical insurance—he’s against it—Jennifer realizes that for Russians, “The long-range plan for the distant future option is never their default position except where root vegetables are concerned.” She undergirds her observations with considerations of Russian history that help explain the country’s foibles, such as weather, geography, and its history of serfdom. Regarding dachas, she blends witty observations (one dacha has a state-of-the-art sauna but “eleventh-century toilet arrangements”) with more serious commentary: “The fact of the matter is…the whole dacha thing is a well-oiled machine designed to keep indentured service for females alive and well.” The chapters on Jennifer’s expat friends hold less interest, except for what they reveal about Russia; her interior design friend, for example, is outshone by the work he’s commissioned to produce, such as a staircase “curved in an aggressive trajectory up to the second floor from its anchor: a ten-foot-high bronze nymph holding aloft a torch…[which] burst into neon lime-green, orange, and purple flame.”
Comical, thoroughly entertaining, and insightful.