Friday, November 2, 2012

Review: Valeria's Last Stand by Marc Fitten

Some people don't like change.  Some are so averse to it that it infects their characters, making them crochety, bitter, and unpleasant.  We use the names of these sorts of people as insults: troglodytes, Luddites, and more.  But even when we are resistant to change, it comes into all of our lives whether we invite it in and embrace it or not.  In Marc Fitten's novel Valeria's Last Stand, there is an entire Hungarian village being modernized at seemingly warp speed but there's also a grumpy, grouchy older woman, the eponymous Valeria, who, because life has not gone the way she wanted, refuses to concede anything to progress until she finds herself falling in love late in life and having to bend and adapt if she wants to have a chance of finally living the life she has long desired.

Set in a small town in Hungary post-Communism, this novel captures provincial life and the assorted characters who populate this place forgotten by progress and innovation.  Now that the people and the town have access to modern conveniences, the mayor is determined haul their little corner of the world into the twenty-first century.  No one is a bigger symbol of the insularity and aversion to change than curmudgeonly Valeria who has been taking her own bad mood out on the other villagers for 40 years.  She is a thoroughly grumpy woman, contemptuous of everyone around her.  But when she spies the village potter making a purchase at the market, she falls for him and has to revamp herself as appealing and desirable, especially since the potter is already involved with the rather buxom, Ibolya, the local bar keep.  The love triangle is comical, and made even more so by the arrival of the itinerant chimney sweep to make it a love square.  But there are very serious issues in play in the novel as well: progress simply for progress' sake, xenophobia, insularity, love, change and adaptation.  It's a unique and unusual comedy of manners really, although threaded with some appalling violence and mob mentality.

The novel is well written and deadpan.  The characters are not entirely likable but they are all the more human for their faults and weaknesses.  Positing a dumpy, cranky sexagenarian as a love-struck muse for the potter is pure genius and the convoluted relationships between the main characters are reminiscent of the theater.  This could definitely be successfully staged.  Valeria as a symbol of the closed and resistant village is well conceived and executed and her slow growth and change, a willingness to open herself up and expose herself to both the positive and the negative, renders this a readable and delightful allegory.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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