A writing teacher once told me you can write a story with two main characters only if both characters want the same thing. Like the naïve Romeo and Juliet, two main characters work best if their desire is pointed in the same direction. Yet, what makes “Luda and Milena” so refreshing is the way both characters work off one another as opposites, all while the reader comes to see each as instrumental tropes in the other’s life. Lara Vapnyar’s story takes the classic woman versus woman conflict to a unique and unexpected place: the multicultural cooking contests between two elderly Russian immigrants; except, unlike Romeo and Juliet’s obsessive, ill-starred love, Luda and Milena’s shared loneliness pull them toward the same person, and their starkly different lives and impulses repel them against each other – working to make them an odd couple for the idiom ‘opposites attract.’
Which is not to say a single kind word is exchanged between the two; actually their vapid remarks and cut downs populate the story with its richest humor. Milena’s derisions are the funniest; she says of Luda, “I wonder what the fat pig will make today,” adding “people like Luda resembled battering rams –they pummeled and pummeled.” Still, her funniest remark is her first: “Milena said that young Luda looked like Saddam Hussein with bigger hair and a mustache.” On the other hand, Luda uses fowl language to describe Milena, calling her an “old bitch,” and asserting that “her face is a battlefield for anti-aging creams.” Yet, her most mean-spirited remarks come in the form of false sympathy: “even this [Aron’s compliment] didn’t give her as big a thrill as the lost expression on Milena’s face. Poor Milena, Luda thought. Poor Milena, who had worn a low-cut blouse and brought store-bought eggplant caviar.”
These reductions could be taken as the superficial animosity of two lonely women, but Vapnyar deepens their hostility by making each a surrogate for previous conflicted relationships. We find Luda, from Moscow, spent her successful career as professor of economics, married to the same man, with a daughter and a family; Milena never had either. However, “this thought failed to console [Luda], as it had failed to console her over the years, every time she had sniffed yet another whiff of new perfume on her husband’s shirt.” Another example is the way Luda describes one of Milena’s glares: “mocking, condescending, pitying. [Luda] had seen it all too often on the faces of her husband’s countless secretaries.” Funny thing is Milena does resemble the mistresses of Luda’s husband. For example, Milena keeps a “sketch of the man who had been her lover for more than twenty years –which included several breakups, other lovers, [and] his never ending marriage to another woman.” Soon Milena begins to assimilate Luda into her memory of her lover’s wife, who had “been the same way [as Luda], and she had got her prize in the end. She had kept her husband, who had finally become a really good husband, now that he was too old, too worn out, too scared, and too beaten down to cheat.”
For all these two characters’ contrasts, the story draws out several of their similarities. Describing her relationship to other married Russian women, Luda says, “her very presence seemed to irk married women of her age, not because they saw her as a threat, but, rather, because her widowhood and loneliness reminded them that they could end up like her.” A few paragraphs later, Milena makes this observation in more concise language: “She knew that trying to approach other couples was pointless – married women of her age looked at her as if she were a disease.” Loneliness and estrangement aren’t all they have in common. Neither particularly enjoys cooking before it becomes a funnel for gaining the admiration of Aron. In addition, the descriptions of their apartments – Luda’s makeshift hand-me-downs from her daughter, Milena’s multi-functional use of chairs –show their analogous immigrant misplacement in Brooklyn. Through the story, the reader comes to realize Aron isn’t the real prize for either woman. Both, after the Friday cooking contests, feel “deflated and tired, too, and perhaps even a little ashamed of their Friday excitement.” One starts to believe the genuine gasoline driving the competition is less Aron, and more “their fear and fury at the thought that he might pick the other as the ultimate winner.”
At this point, the story had me in its grip. I was excited to find how it would conclude this epic contest of wills. The ending approached, and I began to worry the writer wouldn’t satisfy the contest, but would find a way for neither woman to win. My anticipation of this type of conclusion annoyed me. It seems to me fiction practitioners often get it wrong in this way. Life does often choose winners and losers. Therefore, I wanted one of the characters to win, in order to see what this would mean emotionally for the story. I wanted to find how Vapnyar would present it. Instead, she delivered an ending I hadn’t anticipated at all, not merely its plot resolution but also the shift in point of view. The P.O.V. change to the teacher, Angie, disorientated me, and Aron’s death shocked me further. I thought this an odd cop-out. Upon further consideration, I came to see a deathly humor beneath this last scene. Both Luda and Milena are alone, and their rivalry brings about the death of their last potential suitor. I realized this was likely not the first time the force of both characters’ will had driven a man to death. Luda had already lost one cheating husband, and the description of Milena’s beaten down married lover implies a similar fate for him. Aron, their last suitor, becomes their final male victim, and the reader understands the unspoken anger these two women have is truly directed – not at one another – but at the men of their lives.