In her debut novel, Janet Skeslien Charles pulls off a couple of feats. First, the Montana native manages to write convincingly like a Ukrainian who’s tackling the English language. Perhaps more impressively, she crams fascinating cultural and historical information into what might otherwise be merely a diverting beach romance. It’s like sneaking vitamins into a chocolate shake.

Moonlight in Odessa is the story of Daria, a smart and feisty young Ukrainian woman who has just landed a job at an Israeli-run shipping firm that pays 10 times better than any comparable job in Odessa. She loves the work; the catch is that her boss can’t stop chasing her around the office trying to get his hands on her. Opting for a none-too-subtle bait-and-switch strategy, Daria introduces her boss to her friend Olga, who has made it plain she’d be happy to have such an admirer. Problem solved, sort of—now Daria has to worry that Olga might take her job.

So Daria takes a second job, just in case: in the evenings, she helps arrange “socials,” dances at which groups of American men come to meet available Odessan girls. These duties lead her into an Internet correspondence with Tristan, a California schoolteacher much older than she is. Both jobs require her to navigate the complicated forest of corruption that is Odessa shortly after perestroika. The local mob king, Vladimir, comes around to collect “protection” money, and to ask Daria out, repeatedly. He’s suave, handsome, rich, persistent and sensitive: before the mafia, he worked as a marine biologist, possibly the most wholesome profession ever invented.

Daria is torn—will her heart lead her to America and Tristan, or is she tied to her beloved Odessa and the passionate Vlad? True, this could be a gooey and overwrought story, but Daria’s sharp humor and keen insights into human nature make her a winning narrator. In fact, all of the characters are well-drawn, complex and interesting, even the initially sleazy boss. It all goes to show that the romantic beach-read formula needn’t be silly, or even formulaic; in the right hands, it can be instructive.

Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

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