I sometimes review* books on this blog — either because they are totally brilliant or really bad. This one is a bit of both. This is my view of Tessa Dunlop’s To Romania with LOVE, which was published in 2012

This is a book that should never have been published — the author’s introverted husband tried to stop it and is probably still cringing — but I’m glad it was because it’s a snapshot of a particular time in Romanian history and the details of an Anglo-Romanian relationship (endless family misunderstandings, Britain’s horrendous visa application system pre-Brexit, as well as wildly different attitudes towards money, work, leisure) are fascinating.

Now that we’re out of the EU maybe Britain will go back to imposing deliberately opaque immigration rules on people the British tabloids don’t approve of. Maybe it’s the end of easy cross-border marriages and divorces?

On one level I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone as it’s badly edited (why didn’t they delete all the Romanian words she uses, without translation, plunging all non-Romanian speakers into confusion?); but on the other hand I’d recommend it to all those having a relationship with a Romanian. It offers an insight into their history of poverty and Communism, and the resulting behavioural patterns.

I almost didn’t get past the first few chapters, which are set in Romania, as they really grated. I know the area she describes, and worked in a nearby village at the same time (almost 30 years ago), and while there were no factual errors I didn’t like her style, pace and observations. She’s much better when describing things in the UK.

This rather breathless book is full of things that wouldn’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t know the locations. For example, on page 205 she writes “He almost ran down Jules Michelet…” Surely any normal reader would assume that he had almost “run down” someone with a French name with his car? Fortunately I happen to to know that Strada Jules Michelet is the location of the British Embassy in Bucharest.

What are editors and publishers for if not to spot such problems? Isn’t it obvious that if things only make sense to people who know the Romanian words that fill the book, not to mention the locations, they are drastically reducing their audience?

When I used to run a charity in Romania many of our volunteers would write reports using Romanian words, words like caruta (cart) that we would use daily; but they were writing for an internal audience in a small charity, not a big publishing house like Quartet.

There are also incidents in the UK that don’t make any sense: for example near the end of the book they go to visit her parents in Scotland; they hire a car and then, quite near the parents’ house, crash it; not only is there no mention of any detail of the actual accident; but in the next scene they are in Weston Super Mare — beyond Bristol, 500 miles to the south. Suddenly, in the very next scene, they are arriving at their parents house in the Highlands of Scotland, in a car that has a Tardis-like quality of repairing itself and being in two places at once.

None of this seems to bother the rave reviewers you can see on Goodreads, Amazon and on the back of the book. Toby Clements, of the Daily Telegraph, says “a rare, brave and honest account of finding love and holding on to it.”

The common theme running through all this praise is “honesty” and I have to agree with them. Despite my criticisms I liked this book and felt close to all the characters Tessa so lovingly described. Yes, they are all deeply flawed but aren’t we all? And, come to mention it, aren’t most marriages what the Americans would call “a train wreck”?

Tessa Dunlop not only shows great honesty in writing about a difficult relationship but also a lot of courage. This book should never have been written as one doesn’t write (or even Tweet) about relationship difficulties — it’s not the decent thing — so that bloke Clements from the Telegraph is right in saying that such courage in publishing stories like this is “rare”.

Reading this book makes me feel closer to Tessa, who I met a few times in Bucharest, and her introverted Romanian husband (who I never met and probably never will). Tessa clearly loves Romania as she’s produced a series of short YouTube videos about Great Romanians which are really very good — she has something of the delectable Joanna Lumley on screen — and I’m keen to read her next book which is about Romania’s stylish and clever Queen Marie “of Edinburgh”, who reigned in the inter-war period.

I’ve just realised the parallels between Tessa Dunlop and Queen Marie — both were upper class Scots who married Romanians in difficult circumstances; and I expect that as many people predicted the royal marriage wouldn’t work as said that Tessa’s love affair was just “another of her projects” and she would soon drop him.

As far as I know Tessa has managed to keep her marriage on the road, unlike me (I also married a Romanian) — and for this she deserves a lot of praise. Not only is it hard to keep any marriage together in this day and age, when divorce is so easy, but it’s especially hard when you marry a foreigner from a country that was put through the mill by the Communists.

A shorter version of this review was first published on Goodreads. 

*A word about reviews: I only do them for books that inspire or infuriate me. Some of them are very old; books that I’ve stumbled across by chance; but books that are worth knowing about. I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a new book because I don’t want to fork out an inflated amount — and this is my point here: the media only review new books because publishers send them free copies, take them out to lunch (or send them God knows what incentives during lockdown); the whole “review” part of the modern media is built around new things being sponsored, even though most of them are far worse than the classics. “Why not review the classics?” You might ask. You could make a series of in-depth articles out of them. The answer is simple; there’s no charming public-school girl persuading you do to so on the phone, or offering to take you out for a drink later on. 

The other way author’s get reviews is call on their friends. This works particularly well when the friend is a journalist, as they have a lot more reach than my pals who can only post something on Amazon or Goodreads. You can spot this happening every time a journalist writes a book as its cover is plastered with praise from…other journalists. 

That’s how the cookie crumbles when it comes to promoting books.