Set in Brooklyn, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is Anya Ulinich‘s semi-autobiographical (it’s not clear where the line of fiction is drawn after protagonist’s name change) account of a woman diving into the modern world of dating at the tender age of 37. The work explores in-depth not only the classic conflicts of male-female relations, but also the cultural difficulties of the Russian-Jewish American immigrant experience.
With two young daughters to care for and two failed marriages in the rearview, Lena travels back to Russia for a government-sponsored literary tour. There she rekindles her old romance with Alik, an intellectual but odd man she loved when they were children. Upon returning to America though, she realizes that the cultural distance between them has grown too great – so she gets onto OkCupid. And for the first time in her life – having stumbled into one marriage and then another at a young age – she learns just how crazy, but fun and interesting, it is to be single; able to meet and sleep with all kinds of different characters every night. That is, until she meets one on a bus who really sparks her interest…
Reading the novel as a 24-year-old Jewish-Canadian guy, I found the character of Lena to be odd, but endearing. She kept dating – and often quite liking – the worst and weirdest guys (so much so that the book could serve as an advisory notice of why not to use OkCupid). At one point, puzzled, she tells an American female friend of hers about a guy she dated who called her ‘crazy’:
“How am I crazy?! I pay my parking tickets!… Plus, I was nice about the peeing pitbull! And I brought the beer! And I told him how much I liked him… what’s so funny?”
To which her friend responds, “It’s just that you already listed all the reasons he called you crazy!”
Yeah, she’s still getting the hang of ‘the rules of the game’. And when she does stick with one guy, he’s one of the most puzzling characters yet. But I guess I already knew from reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot that Russian chicks be crazy. On that note however, I could relate to her particular Russian intellectualism, how she often interprets her own life through the works of authors like Chekov or Tolstoy.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel deals with some fairly weighty issues, and yet everything feels so cordial. The novel is written with a wonderful humour and warmth. It’s very human, and touching, and in that combination of intellectual depth, humour and pathos, it felt much like the wonderful Jewish-North American experience books of Saul Bellow and Mordecai Richler. I’m glad ‘Lena’ tossed her ‘terrorist romance novel’ at the end. When real life is this interesting, who needs fiction?