Alina and Liviu are not happy people. This is not surprising, given that most people in 1970s Romania are unhappy. The only happy person in Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods seems to be Alina’s mother, who delights in reporting other people to the secret service and in bullying her daughter into acting like an obedient daughter-comrade. From the time we meet Alina, just after her marriage to Liviu, to the time she escapes the country, we see a woman constantly wrestling with her emotional obligations to her family…and to herself.
Nicolae Ceaușescu‘s Romania seemed like a special kind of Communist hell—at least as it’s portrayed in the West. It was a country where abortion was illegal and women were encouraged to have as many children as possible; a policy that lead to orphanages that warehoused unwanted children in horrific conditions. Alina doesn’t run afoul of reproductive oppression, but she runs full-face into Romania’s omnipresent police state when her new brother-in-law defects to France. All of a sudden, all of Alina and Liviu’s prospects for advancement are gone. Liviu can’t get a decent job. Alina can’t publish her math workbook. Worse, everyone is looking at Alina to try and catch her at something. The pressure builds until Alina and Liviu start to plan their own defection.
Parts of Bottled Goods are unbearably tense. Alina is constantly interrogated, even though she’s done nothing wrong. The only thing that really keeps Alina from fully committing to the plan to escape is her overbearing mother. This mother has always been telling Alina what to do, what to wear, how to speak. In any other (non-Communist) country, emotional abuse would be the extent of Alina’s mother’s powers. But in Romania, Alina’s mother also has the ability to turn the entire state against her daughter as punishment for disobeying her commands.
Things get a little weird at the end of Bottled Goods. So weird, in fact, that I think the book could have done without the weirdness. Alina’s story and all it’s emotional torment were more than enough for me. That said, some readers might enjoy the surreal twist at the end of the book, just for the sheer joy of seeing Alina finally get back some of her own.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.