Bottled Goods: A Novel
- By Sophie van Llewyn
- Harper Perennial
- 192 pp.
- Reviewed by Kim Armstrong
- August 12, 2020
A young woman endures the competing pressures of Communist Romania and her family.
Alina lives a simple life. Or, at least, in the communist regime of 1970s Romania, it’s very important that it appears that way.
On the outside, she is a teacher working close enough to the home she grew up in to share an impromptu cup of coffee with her mother, and every Sunday, she slips out into the morning chill to buy her husband Liviu’s favorite pastries as a special breakfast treat. Her aunt is also close at hand for a word of matronly advice when Alina isn’t busy playing hostess at home.
Behind this façade, however, Alina is dogged by a manipulative, widowed mother who considers her marriage and subsequent move into her own home number one on an endlessly expanding list of selfish betrayals.
In reality, Alina can’t afford the apple strudels. She receives them as payment for passing one of her pupils and trades the pastries for a chance at receiving a smile, or a mere grunt of acknowledgement, from Liviu, an increasingly bitter historian who returns from his dead-end tutoring job smelling more strongly of alcohol each day.
Alina does play hostess, but not to friends and family, and especially not to her colleagues, who know better than to be seen speaking with her, much less entering her home. Instead, following the defection of her distant brother-in-law and the discovery of a contraband magazine in her classroom, Alina must offer tea and cakes and her own body for consumption to a rotating cast of government men in grey suits sent to crush and humiliate her — not for anything she herself has done, but for the crime of mere association with those who have defied their cultural authority.
The situation is as hopeless as it seems. Fortunately, Alina’s Aunt Theresa is not. Adorned with gold and an air of authority that speak of her family’s former wealth, Aunt Theresa is also armed with a not-so-subtle kind of magic that might just be able to set Alina free — if she is willing to turn the tables on those who would see her bottled up for life.
Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods is a compelling collection of flash fiction that frames Alina’s life in a range of styles, from straight prose to charts, commentaries to bulleted lists. Some scenes are boiled down to their essence so thoroughly that they manage to convey the merciless claustrophobia of Alina’s existence while occupying only a single line or page.
That said, while Alina often seems to play a supporting role in her own life, walking the path and speaking the lines supplied to her by her mother, her husband, and her government — sometimes literally, such as when she works as a guide for foreigners on a state-sanctioned tour of Romania — the searing heat of her own will is clear throughout, even if she is rarely free to act on it, as in this scene with her mother:
“The glowing tip of her cigarette draws a circle around my head. I could reply that it’s not my husband’s fault that I’m not happy, but her own refusal to support me, forcing me into taking a job I never liked…I could say something about her attempt at manipulation. Instead, I tell her, ‘I’m delighted by your present!’”
Alina’s relationship with Liviu is equally muddled. She views his family with disdain, imagining herself as a noble held hostage by a peasant on their wedding night. She detests the numb, drunken man her formerly soft-spoken student of history has become in the fallout of his brother’s defection. The two repeatedly crash together and draw apart out of desperation and necessity, bound by the knowledge that if one of them sinks, the other will be damned by association.
Their relationship, like so many others in Bottled Goods, is a pressure cooker. It is one of the numerous balancing acts that confront Alina with the question of where to draw the line between what she needs and what she is willing to sacrifice for others. As van Llewyn shows, nothing can stay bottled up forever, and it is well worth witnessing how Alina’s story boils over.
Kim Armstrong is a science writer and editor. They are an aspiring plant hoarder/fantasy author, play too many videogames, and can be found hammocking at the nearest park.