|Although Odessa might be the humor capital of the former Soviet Union, in Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles, it is also a city mired in unemployment, power outages, food shortages, and rampant corruption. Luckily for the reader it is also a city full of lively, quirky, and charismatic characters that fill the pages of this entertaining debut novel.
Young Daria has an engineering degree, speaks fluent English, and understands the Odessan system of bribes and “facilitation,” but the only job she can find in the depressed Odessa job market is as a secretary at a foreign shipping/import company. The pay is great, but the job comes with the agreement that she’ll sleep with her boss, David, as part of the job. Daria is trying to support herself and her beloved grandmother so she feels she must take the job. She manages to put off David’s advances for months and then re-directs his lust to Olga, her childhood friend and neighbor, who then shows a new vicious and conniving side of herself. Daria is also being pursued by, and is unadvisedly attracted to Vlad, a sexy and dangerous mobster.
In fear of losing her job, now that Olga’s in the picture, Daria gets a second job with “Soviet Unions,” an online dating/matchmaking service where she acts as a translator between the desperate American men seeking wives and the equally desperate young women seeking escape from Odessa’s poverty and hardship. Caving into pressure from all sides, Daria begins to communicate with a couple of Americans and eventually agrees to come to America to meet Tristan, a middle-aged teacher from San Francisco, a city that epitomizes all that is attractive about America. Of course everything doesn’t turn out as planned and Daria’s evolution through this realization is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.
Charles does a wonderful job of fully developing her many characters and she adds luscious details about life in Odessa, a city of great contrasts. The way Daria accesses her relationships, her options, and her attraction to her home city rings true. The book tells a great story while inviting the reader to consider the difficult choices a person will make when striving for change. Like the complex city of its title, Moonlight in Odessa is a stimulating blend of funny and serious writing.