Friday, May 31, 2013

Review: A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True
By Brigid Pasulka
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009
351 pages
From the library
PEN/Hemingway Award in 2013, #3

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True
Many years ago, a young man nicknamed The Pigeon lived in a small village. He sees and instantly falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Anielica. In a lover's desperate bid to get to know her and win her hand, he begins to make improvements on her family home - for free. But war is looming on the periphery of this seemingly fairytale story. Decades later, The Pigeon's granddaughter Beata is looking for love and purpose in Krakow in the 1990s. As she uncovers the story of her family bit by bit, she finds new insight into herself and her place in the world.
This book begins slowly. The contrast between the story of The Pigeon and Anielica in the 1940s and Beata in the 1990s is striking. The first story is set against the backdrop of first love and a community coming together in a time of war. Beata is trying to find her way in a Poland that has survived war and decades of unrest. Her story feels quieter and almost inconsequential at times, in comparison to the epic tale of her ancestors.
But somewhere along the way, as I hurriedly flipped through Beata's section to get back to the young lovers, I became just as invested in her story. While the two parts seem to be connected only through ancestry, it slowly becomes apparent that this book is about the lasting impact our family and their stories have on our lives. While Pigeon and Anielica lived in a time of great turmoil, they always held onto hope for the future and for their love. Beata lives in a time of relative peace, but life seems to hold neither purpose nor hope for happiness, at least for the young people of her generation. She struggles with finding her 'happily-ever-after,' but eventually discovers that even her grandmother had disappointments and terrible heartbreak.

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True is heavily influenced by its setting. Krakow and Half-Village, the home of Pigeon and Anielica, almost become characters themselves. Pasulka describes them so completely and so subtly that they feel like places you have known. She sprinkles Polish terms liberally throughout, but I didn't feel that it detracted too much from the story (and no, I do not know any Polish).

This book contains a love story, a coming of age story, a story about living through a war, and a story about finding your place in your family and your country. The writing is lovely and the characters will grow on you until you feel as if they could be a part of your family - the grandparent telling you the story of their life or the young cousin searching for her way in the world. This is a book you won't want to miss.


  1. Sounds wonderful...I love the title. Your review really makes me want to read this novel. :)

    1. I really enjoyed the blend of a sort of fairy tale feel and hard-hitting, dark realism. I hope you like it as much as I did!