“ Genre: Fiction / Author: Laurie Graham / Paperback / 320 Pages / Book is published 2009-06-04 by Quercus Publishing Plc „
Beryl "Buzz" Wexler, a successful American record company executive living in London, is elated to receive a phone-call from the organisers of the prestigious Urbies awards telling her that she's going to be given a lifetime achievement award. However, her joy soon turns to despair when her boss puts her on a new assignment; one of the staff in the "World Music" department of the company has been taken ill and the boss needs Beryl to stand in for her, looking after a singing troupe of middle-aged Bulgarian women. Beryl doesn't want to do it: she's too cool for this gig, after all wasn't it Beryl that discovered hit bands like Angry Belgians and Ear Waxx? Reluctantly she agrees to escort the Gorni Grannies first as they tour provincial England, then on to the United States where Beryl promises she'll look in on her elderly father when the tour hits her home town of Pittsburgh.
Hard-drinking, drug-abusing, fashion victim Buzz is appalled when she meets the dowdy Bulgarian ladies whose idea of retail therapy is to go mad in "Poundland", and their equally bizarre interpreter, Olga, who talks incessantly about the good old days under the Communists. To say that Buzz has her work cut out would be an understatement; even Ear Waxx were less trouble than the Gorni Grannies. She discovers that Kichka is a kleptomaniac, and Stanka is the mother of a mafia gangster living in Manchester. But Beryl finds herself warming to Lubka, the self-appointed leader of the Gorni Grannies, who leads a simple life in rural Bulgaria, far removed from the hectic life Beryl lives and before long Lubka and Beryl realise they have more in common than meets the eye.
"Life according to Lubka" is a warm and touching novel hiding behind a façade of pure farce. The trouble is the comedy is pretty gratuitous and I felt that what was an excellent premise was rendered too fantastic by unbelievable characters and too many hilarious scenarios. It may seem petulant to complain that a book is too funny but in this case the novel suffers because of it.
The narration alternates between Buzz, Olga and Lubka and some of it overlaps which allows you to see the same events from different perspectives. It also amplifies the culture clash with comical results. Buzz, who spends hours agonising over what she'll wear to accept her award at the Urbies, is disdainful of the clothes of the Bulgarian ladies but Olga's diary reveals that the "high level interpret" doesn't rate her wardrobe much either "...she does not wear smartsuit of business person but clothes of Western ex slave...Perhaps she did not rise to this position by excellence but only with sex flavours".
Some of the characters are brilliant but not the main players. Considerably she gets a name-check in the title, Lubka is somewhat overshadowed by the formidable Olga, while the character of Buzz has too many contradictions to make her even remotely realistic. I understand the idea that Buzz is being shifted aside to "world music" (clearly where middle-aged record execs go when they've lost their edge) with the implication that she's too old, but at the age of just forty-two the scenario seemed contrived. I think the likes of Kylie and Madonna have proven that age is no restriction in the music industry these days and the idea that Buzz was past her sell-by date didn't work. It was just a convenient means of making her consider her priorities, another aspect of the plot that was poorly tackled. The speed at which Buzz's whole attitude is transformed is way too fast and as a result the second half of the story is rushed and all the threads are tidied up too conveniently.
For me the star of the show is Olga, the officious interpreter who finds herself drawn to Gerry, the tour bus driver who nurses an unhealthy Abba obsession. The mistakes she makes in her diary of the tour are priceless: "Chiff products of King Lynn is seefood, examples cockle, wrinkle and muscle".
I also loved Mal, the young record company junior who comes on tour as Buzz's assistant but ends up doing most of the work himself as Buzz drowns her sorrows at night and spends her days recovering. Mal is excited to be asked to come along and works so hard, only to be delegated more donkey work.
I had initially been drawn to the book because of my love for all things Eastern European but I did feel that there was more fun-poking at Bulgarians that was absolutely necessary. Maybe I was being a little precious but I felt like Laurie Graham was making fun of me too. I laughed and laughed at Olga's mistakes - ironically it's discovered that Lubka speaks just as good English as Olga - but I felt a little bit guilty about doing so. That said, there is a highly comical scene when the group go out for a Chinese meal and read out the mottos from their fortune cookies - "Speak no evil, hear no elvis" - which had me laughing so much I forgot my pangs of guilt altogether.
One aspect I really liked an alternative contrast between Lubka and Olga; just because they are both similarly aged Bulgarian ladies, it doesn't follow that they share the same beliefs. Olga still harks back to the old days at any opportunity while Lubka declares an admiration (like many eastern Europeans I have met) for Ronald Reagan "because he did give us new Bulgaria. He did tell Gorbachev, open this door. Fall down this wall. And it did fall down". It doesn't tackle the subject in any detail or with much gravity but it at least acknowledges the differing views.
The ridiculous names of the bands Buzz is supposed to have discovered made me cringe; they were like something my mother would invent to try to wind me up when I was a teenager. "Who is it this week? Mouldy Pram?" It was details like this that took the story from amusing to corny.
Where Laurie Graham excels is in painting vivid pictures. I could imagine Kichka like a little squirrel hiding in her handbag anything that hadn't been fastened down, and when the ladies refused drinks at the hotel bar but pulled out a bottle of homemade rakia each, I could picture the relief on Buzz's face when she realised she wasn't on tour with a bunch of tee-toallers.
"Life According to Lubka" is a very funny book that could have been better if more focus has been placed on developing the friendship between Lubka and Buzz at a better pace and spending a little less time on the comedic elements, funny as they are. It's guaranteed to raise a smile - the perfect gift for anyone who likes laughing at foreigners (in the nicest way if that's possible). If you enjoyed Marina Lewycka's "A History of Tractors in Ukrainian", this is unlikely to disappoint.