The So-Called Greatest Country in the World

June 3, 2021   •   By Kate Tsurkan

The Wife Who Wasn’t

Alta Ifland

NOTHING REFLECTS human nature in its most naked form more than the so-called American Dream — an imagined paradise on earth designed to stir up feelings of envy and longing in people around the world. This alluring vision has inspired acts of greatness and of abject horror, and even though Americans debate its continued existence (Donald Trump having infamously declared, “The American Dream is dead!”), it remains something to strive for in the hearts of many beyond the nation’s borders. Romanian American author Alta Ifland’s debut novel, The Wife Who Wasn’t, takes this carefully manufactured concept and turns it on its head. The novel is a comedy-of-errors page-turner in which a mail-order-bride service, a mind-boggling series of love triangles, a stolen Egon Schiele painting, and a devastating fire lead to an epic collision of Santa Barbara, California, and Chișinău, Moldova.

Sammy, an upper-middle-class Californian of Moldovan descent, decides to find his second wife through a mail-order service in Moldova. In typical American fashion, he doesn’t seem to possess any substantive ties to his family’s ancestral homeland: “For him, the old country was practically fiction, a fog out of which occasional shapes emerged only to recede immediately into the same darkness.”

What is the appeal, then, you might wonder, of choosing a wife from a Moldovan catalog? As it turns out, Sammy is more interested in finding a woman who will be seen but not heard, believing — like many Western men — that Eastern European women are more subservient because they were spared from the clutches of Women’s Liberation. This is, naturally, a recipe for disaster: while Eastern Europe might be viewed in some ways as more patriarchal than the West, that doesn’t mean its women are meek, helpless creatures. After all, these women have lived through wars, regime changes, and political persecution over countless decades; while their fathers, brothers, and husbands went off to war, were killed, or disappeared, women held down the fort and managed as best they could (some even chased glory on the battlefield themselves). If anything, they’re a force to be reckoned with, though Sammy seems ill-prepared for such a reckoning.

Enter Tania, a shapely Russian woman from Chișinău who assumes the role of Sammy’s new wife. Sammy expects Tania to be a doting mother to his moody, withdrawn teenage daughter, Anna, and to keep their home life in order. But Tania has plans of her own: namely, to bring her own teenage daughter, Irina, to America for a chance at a better life, and to get her away from a troublemaking boyfriend. In one of her first letters home, Tania describes her peculiar new surroundings: the neighborhood eschews the architectural conformity of classic suburbia in favor of one eyesore after the next, including Sammy’s solid-black house and another that looks like an upside-down ice cream cone. Naturally, this all comes as a surprise to Tania, whose preconceptions of Santa Barbara were more along the lines of the classic American soap opera of the same name, the first of its kind to be broadcast in the former Soviet Union. Despite the culture shock, however, Tania always seems to find her footing and adapt to her new surroundings. In her letter, she even expresses appreciation for Sammy’s strange black house, stating that it’s the “house of a gentleman.” When a store clerk refuses to let her pay for a purchase with Sammy’s credit card, Tania maintains her dignity, snapping back: “I may have a foreign accent, I may even have a Russian accent, but I’m not stupid.”

Tania is both a source of scandal and a perverse delight to the neighbors. She doesn’t understand these people, of course, who all homeschool their children, throw decadent house parties, and adhere to vegetarian diets. But her new family and neighbors don’t understand her either, and more often than not, they don’t seem to want to. This lack of understanding expresses itself in subtly cruel ways, such as when Anna, giggling, presents her new stepmother with gifts: a razor and a stick of deodorant.

The exchange of letters between Tania and her family back home in Moldova follow chapters dictated by an omniscient narrator. With these narrative shifts, the author challenges us not to rely on the perspective of any single character. We see Tania through the eyes of her new family and neighbors, but then we have a chance to hear from the woman herself. When Tania conveys her disbelief, in a letter, at Sammy’s furious objections to her wearing a fur coat (at first, she is delighted, thinking he is jealous of the past admirer who gave it to her), we are reminded that however offensive genuine fur might be to many Americans, there is diversity of thought in the world. In Tania’s letters, we step out of a realm of American absolutes, too often defined by an uncompromising, oversimplified sense of right and wrong. The reader is drawn to perceive how odd and passionless Sammy is, viewing women as objects and contemplating divorce when he realizes his new wife is anything but. For her part, Tania is constantly scheming: how to bring her daughter over to America; how to seduce Bill, Sammy’s neighbor and best friend. Indeed, it turns out that every character in the novel has some ulterior motive: after all, America is the land of opportunity.

Irina’s eventual arrival in Santa Barbara brings a frenetic pulse to the story, as she provides a foil to Sammy’s daughter, Anna. They both have their eyes set on Lenny, a sleazy art dealer who lives in the neighborhood. Irina has a talent for painting religious icons and plans to use Lenny’s influence in the art world to help her get rich and get her boyfriend out of Moldova. Lenny, in turn, is besotted with Irina but pretty much oblivious to Anna’s existence. Even though they’re the same age, the two girls couldn’t be more different: Irina is aware of her sexuality and the sway she exerts over men, whereas Anna is more like a child — or, in the words of Tania, she “looks more like a boy than a girl, can’t eat meat and doesn’t do any household chores.” This would-be love triangle takes a dark turn after Anna discovers that Irina, in a new get-rich-quick scheme, has replaced the Egon Schiele painting in Lenny’s collection with a convincing forgery, and starts to plot her revenge.

Ifland, who came to the United States in 1991, lived in Romania during the reign of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. The light tone of her novel, even during its suspenseful moments, seems to be Ifland’s way of poking fun at the triviality of everyday American life. Americans are the masters of their own small universe: they live in the so-called greatest country in the world, a country immigrants will do anything to reach, and yet many Americans are deeply unhappy. Undoubtedly, they face serious socioeconomic and political challenges, especially in recent years, but it seems all too easy to forget how privileged they are, in many respects, compared to people elsewhere in the world, even if they themselves can’t see it. And when foreigners arrive and witness this general malaise, they want — in the words of Tania, our Moldovan hero — to shake Americans and shout: “Look around! Look at all this beauty! Feast your eyes on it!”

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Kate Tsurkan is the founding editor of Apofenie magazine.