The Wife Who Wasn’t is a lusty social satire written by Santa Cruz resident Alta Ifland, a professional translator, author of award-winning literary fiction and native Romanian.
Ifland’s just-released book is a pungent sitcom about a fiery mail-order bride from Moldova who marries a wealthy Santa Barbara widower. The meeting of two worlds in the mid-1990s, The Wife Who Wasn’t is a clever snapshot of East and West contradictions. Ifland spoke to me recently about her inspiration.
Is it fair to say that much of your satirical comedy is based upon your own biography, as a Romanian who came of age during communism before coming to the U.S.?
ALTA IFLAND: Yes. I left Romania in 1991, less than two years after the fall of communism, so I only lived the beginning of the post-communist era. The novel starts in 1996, so I had to imagine life there after my departure. I realized from Eastern European immigrants I met here that there is a type of human created by communism: a human being that feels no personal responsibility—because when you don’t own anything and the state owns everything, no one assumes responsibility, and so the first impulse is to destroy things because they don’t belong to anyone. This is how I got the idea to make Tania and Irina leave Santa Barbara after a great destructive act.
The book takes great delight in presenting both the realities and stereotypes of capitalism and communism.
That’s true, but there’s a danger of transforming the novel into ideology or dogmatic exposition. Literature—good literature—is ambiguous, and ideology is direct, so the only way you can create a good novel that exposes social issues is through credible characters. So I tried to create characters emblematic of both worlds. In the end, my intention was to create characters that anyone who has lived in Eastern Europe under or immediately after communism could recognize, but also characters that are typically Californian. And so, insofar as the characters in my novel are types, they may seem slightly cartoonish. Writing an entertaining novel is more difficult than it may seem.
You ridicule stereotypes of the elite West Coast as well as the ‘backward’ Romanians. Which provided you as author with the richest material?
Well, the richest material and the most fun: the Romanians, obviously. If there is anything Romania has to offer, it is comic material. Although, to be fair, California too offers plenty of hilarious material.
Your main character Tania’s letters to her mother back in the old country are priceless bits of critical voyeurism. Was the anthropology of SoCal as much fun to satirize as that of Moldova?
I think it was, because when I was satirizing SoCal I imagined an Eastern European reader on the other end—I mean, an Eastern European from the 1990s, when the world was very different from the one of today, a pre-internet and social media world, when America and Eastern Europe were two completely different worlds.
In your book, women use sex and food as power, men use alcohol as escape/relief from that power. Does this characterization cross national boundaries?
Ha, that’s a good question. Yes and no. I suppose one could say that these are universal characteristics of men and women, but one can also say that they are more specific to the two sexes in more traditional societies, such as Moldova.
The role of alcohol is prominent in your book. How is alcohol use different in this country?
No Westerner can begin to imagine the role of alcohol in communism, in particular [in] Soviet Russia. But based on what we—those who’ve lived there—know and remember, I think the huge majority of men during communism were alcoholic. People drank constantly. I think it was their way of medicating and escaping an unbearable reality. In communism, it didn’t matter if you were drunk at work. I remember I had a teacher of Romanian—and he was a very good teacher—who came so drunk to class he often fell asleep with his head on the desk. The entire society was drunk.
You scrutinize male friendships in America with a jaundiced eye. But women come off as gold diggers.
Yes, women come off as gold diggers, because at the time a lot of women from that part of the world were trying to “get” men from this part of the world. It was their ticket out—out of a lifetime of misery. Desperate people do desperate things. Sometimes the clichés are true.
‘The Wife Who Wasn’t’ by Alta Ifland is published by New Europe Books and available at bookstores everywhere.