Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: The Lullaby of Polish Girls by Dagmara Dominczyk

The Lullaby of Polish Girls by Dagmara Dominczyk
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Publication Date: June 4, 2013
Page Count: 212
Keywords: Poland, female friendships, murder
Goodreads & Amazon

Anna Baran is twelve when she visits Poland for the first time since she and her parents immigrated to Brooklyn as a girl. She spends her childhood never quite feeling like she can fit in, but when she goes to her small town of Kielce, she has found her home. She loves the smell of the kielbasa, the boys that help her with her luggage, and she brushes off the children that chide her for only being American. During that trip to Poland, she meets the vulgar, boy-crazy Justyna, and the self-conscious Kamila. The girls form a fast friendship, and create a strong bond that follows them through the years to their complicated adulthoods in different places. As they get older, they get together less and less often, but when Justyna's husband is murdered, it is just the event to unwind the tangles of their lives, and bring them back together.
The last twenty-four hours have brought a bloodbath upon the Strawicz home. They have brought the inevitable, but Justyna can't see that now. All she can see is that overnight, she has become someone who will be whispered about. From now on, people will whisper that she's too sad, or not sad enough. They'll whisper accusations and apologies. And surely they'll whisper if she ever finds another man, but who the fuck in this town will want to date an unemployed widow with a kid, anyway?
I don't think I've ever read a book set in Poland, or that revolves so tightly around Polish character, and that was a main selling point to me when it came to deciding whether or not to pick up The Lullaby of Polish Girls. My father's side of the family is 100% Polish, and I always loved the idea of my grandparent's arguing or having secret conversations in Polish so my dad and his siblings couldn't understand. And, of course, who doesn't love some pierogi, stuffed cabbage, and dill pickle soup? The Lullaby of Polish Girls definitely takes us to Poland. Anna sees Kielce as a magical place in the summer, even though it's a town so rough the citizen's are called 'switchblades.' There's a quaintness to the town that is well illustrated by the gossiping neighbors, and the simple landmarks, such as a rug-beating structure, that hold a magnitude of memories. There is a lot of the very complicated Polish language scattered throughout the book, and a lot of it can be translated through context clues. Dominczyk also includes a little Polish 101 pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book which helped greatly. I also downloaded the iTranslate app, which was a HUGE help for the phrases that popped up here and there without context.
This is Anna's third consecutive summer in Poland, not counting those first three days back in 1989, and the summers can't arrive fast enough. The rest of the year, Anna writes letters, sends care packages, and makes frequent trips to Brooklyn's Polish neighborhood, Greenpoint, just to fill up on whiffs of kielbasa at butcher shops. Every day, she gets home from school and checks the mailbox. Kamila writes the most, about once a week, and reading her dispatches is like subscribing to a personalized Kielce Daily News. Sometimes it still surprises Anna that life goes on after she boards the plane in late August, that seasons change, that school happens, and that there are holidays. She can't picture her friends in scarves and mittens, trudging through the snow. She can't picture leaves falling from the trees, or spring blossoms. To her Poland is summer and nothing else. 
The characters in this book were so beautiful, and I couldn't get enough of their daily lives and relationship. The narration jumps from girl to girl with each chapter, spanning from their childhood to adulthood. Anna immigrates to New York City with her parents when she is a little girl. After a trip to Poland when she is twelve, she spends every summer she can there. An incident on a summer camping trip, though, shrinks Anna's desire to visit as frequently as she does, and falls off the Kielce map for several years. She grows up to be a budding movie star in New York City, with a failing relationship to her boyfriend of nearly a decade. Kamila has always been the most loyal to Anna, as their mother's were also best friends growing up and they were born weeks apart. The constant scrutinizing from her traditional mother has bred an intense level of self-consciousness within her, and she's constantly dieting and changing her face to be beautiful. She flees to Detroit to live with her family when she discovers an unlikely affair within her own marriage. And then there's Justyna, the forever-vulgar one in the trio who was the first to have sex. She is also the first to become a mother, and it is the murder of her husband that causes ripples all the way to Detroit and New York City. Each of these characters are so ripe and full of stories. I also appreciated how even though we see their growth into adulthood, and we believe they are growing up, they haven't neglected certain tics or qualities that was displayed in them as young girls. They were each so different, but not too different that we couldn't see why they remained friends.
"My nochal. Right." She wonders what her father will think next time he sees her. She is getting rid of his nose, his genetic stamp. All her life Kamila has dreamed of transformation, of physical metamorphosis, because beauty was not just skin deep; it burrowed underneath tissue and muscle. Kamila liked her personality just fine, thought of herself as insightful and enterprising; but ever since Maciek Toboszycki told her she was ugly, calling her brzydula in front of the whole fourth grade, Kamila has wanted to erase her face and start over. And now, she is going to do just that. She thinks about the picture she has had tucked in her wallet for weeks now--a close-up of Michelle Pfiefer's tiny, button-sized nose. When she nervously showed it to Norbert last week, he smiled. "Well, I'm not a miracle worker, Kamila, but I'll try."
Each character handles the hardships in their lives differently, and sometimes in a way that made me want to shake them. Slight Spoilers Ahead: Kamila is staying in Detroit with her parents after running away from her husband when she makes an unlikely discovery. Justyna witnesses something damaging to Anna, but keeps her lips sealed the whole time. Each of these scenarios begged for some sort of confrontation, and I really wanted these things to come to a head. There were even many moments when something could have been said, especially between Justyna and Anna. I really wanted an explosion between Kamila and her husband, and I really wanted a moment of solidarity between Justyna and Anna. As much as I wanted these moments, it wouldn't have been fully true to these characters. Kamila's low self-esteem and years of dedication to her husband would not allow her to become unsavory. And Justyna simply isn't the type of girl who is going to be soft. She's a tough-as-nails bitch with a shred of enough compassion to let her friends in.
"I'm okay, Anna. I'm okay." Anna nods and closes her eyes, tucks her head in the crook of Justyna's shoulder. Justyna smiles. This is the kind of night she had hoped for. And maybe the light of day would bring a bit of regret with it, regret at how wasted they got, and how disrespectful they had been, to both the living and the dead. Or maybe they'd continue in the only way they knew how; at once shielding their pain and sharing it, brutally, in revelatory spasms, but always with a wan smile and a wink.
Given the murder that brings them all together, a murder-mysteryish aspect was expected. There were thrilling moments that revolved around the murder and it's aftermath, but the event itself is spelled out pretty clearly, at least to Justyna and her sister Elwira. Throughout The Lullaby of Polish Girls, there are a lot of big, dramatic moments that pepper each of the girl's lives, and because of the time jumps within the book, we learn a lot of these things pretty early on. This caused me to expect one last BIG thing to happen at the climax of the novel for the three girls, but that thing never happened. As much as I was hoping for it, the rich characterization of the girls, and the drama of their lives, was enough to keep me hooked and loving this novel.

The Lullaby of Polish Girls had some of the best characters I have read recently. We get to watch them grow, form a bond with them, and even as they morph into adults, they stay true to their character. I was hooked on the drama of Anna, Justyna, and Kamila's lives, and I was wound up in the threads that kept them tied together. This is a crazy impressive debut novel from Dominczyk, and I am super looking forward to reading any work she puts out in the future.

Have you read this? Do you know of any other great books revolving around Poland?

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