A Florida transplant from Eastern Europe meditates on life and love.
Ludmila, “bar philosopher extraordinaire,” is a middle-aged immigrant helping her lover, Leo, run a strip club in Tampa. When an unnamed patron keeps returning to the club, she regales him with her colorful life story. Like a 21st-century Scheherazade, she interweaves tales of lovers she’s had throughout her life in America, from Larry, the abusive man with whom she has her only child, to Daniel, whom she marries illegally in Mexico to help him collect wedding gifts. (It's in this period she earns the nickname Worthy, an ironic nod to her ability for petty grift.) But her great love is Theodore, a literature professor who, under the guidance of four novels by Mann, Nabokov, Camus, and Melville, leads Worthy into a life of scamming and con jobs, which they perform good-naturedly all over the world. In her debut novel, Birnbaum has created a glorious and frustrating character in Worthy. Readers’ tolerance for her will likely depend on their stamina for the long stretches of broken English and difficult syntax she uses as a non-native speaker. Combined with her penchant for philosophizing, this can make for knotty, though realistic, reading. Similarly, Worthy’s oral history is perhaps too beholden to verisimilitude: although she keeps her anonymous listener hooked with the promise of resolving the story of her great love affair with Theodore, the climax, when it comes, gets little attention in favor of the lessons she learns. But the lessons are always moving: “May I live on earth, we don’t ask before we are born, but we are here without asking and we could give something, be worthy, even if no mark will stay after.”
An uneven story anchored by a memorable protagonist.