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Jul 6, 2009

Book Review: "Valeria's Last Stand" by Marc Fitten

Valeria's Last Stand: A Novel (Hardcover)by Marc Fitten
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (April 28, 2009)
ISBN-10: 1596916206
ISBN-13: 978-1596916203
The Burton Review Rating: 4 Stars

Product Description:
"A comic romp celebrating late-flowering love in a Hungarian village that will appeal to readers of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
Valeria is a whale in a puddle. She harrumphs her daily way through her backwater Hungarian village, finding equal fault with the new, the old, the foreign, and the familiar. Her decades of universal contempt have turned her into a touchstone of her little community—whatever she scorns the least must be the best, after all. But, on a day like any other, her spinster’s heart is struck by an unlikely arrow: The village potter, long known and little noticed, captures her fancy, and Valeria finds herself suddenly cast in a role she never expected to play. This one deviation from character, this one loose thread, is all it takes for the delicately woven fabric of village life to unravel. And, for the first time in a long time, Valeria couldn't care less. With humor and sensitivity, author Marc Fitten delivers an unexpected and entirely inspiring first novel that will leave you begging for more."

Set in a small village in Hungary, this is the story of the locals; their socializing and their meager way of life. And it is not a story that is only central to Valeria, it is about these villagers of Zivatar which is a tiny town that time and technology has left alone, save for the mayor's meager efforts. The characters we meet are interesting to read about, though not many are instantly likable. There are some female characters with names while the men simply go by their profession: the potter, the apprentice, the chimney sweep, the mayor. Surprisingly, it works.

The story opens up to Valeria, a woman approaching seventy years of age and is set in her ways, having no qualms to tell you what's what. She has no friends, she does not have a purpose in life except to harass others when she sees fit. The villagers enjoy poking fun at her and ridiculing her. Oddly enough, she sees the local potter in the market and is completely mesmerized by him. At this point she seems human enough and we get to empathise with her; otherwise she really was easy to hate. We are then introduced to another strong willed woman, Ibolya, the local tavern owner. Of course these two women hate each other, especially now that they learn they both have eyes for the potter. What transpires now is an engrossing and a spicy story that wraps its arms around you and doesn't let go. We witness the growth of the characters with delight and chagrin.
The third party narrative works splendidly in this book as it gives us unique point of views from each of the main characters to help add to the nuance of the village as the story develops. As opposed to a family saga, this is more of a saga of the villagers and the two women that help define it as the village reaches it critical turning point of survival of the fittest. How the villagers react to one another, and to the events that transpire, was absorbing to read. The women fight over the potter, other relationships are ruined and made, the chimney sweeper becomes a murderer - it all becomes wrapped in a strangely engaging little story about senior citizens struggling to keep up with the world around them.
There is also a back story of capitalism and power that the author broaches with the mayor who is trying to bring technology and renewal to his citizens, who have mostly been stuck in their black hole of a village while the rest of world left it behind. The novel built up a lot of momentum with its provocative storyline and made my stomach churn as I was getting towards the climatic ending. The author did compose a fine debut novel, although a bit more on the crude side with some of the language, and I would have enjoyed it with a bit less sex, but I am intrigued as to the fact that he plans this novel to be the first of The Paprika Trilogy. I am definitely going to read the next one to see if it is as compelling as this one was, as this was a perfect weekend read for me. This is one of those types of books that you either love it or hate it, depending on your mood. I enjoyed it for being a quick read, the unique storytelling and the unforgettable characters.