Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Petropolis, by Anya Ulinich

One-line summary: A black, Jewish, Russian émigré from Siberia goes to America in search of her father.


Goodreads: Average: 3.67. Mode: 4 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.4 Mode: 5 stars.

In her stunning debut novel, Anya Ulinich delivers a funny and unforgettable story of a Russian mail-order bride trying to find her place in America. After losing her father, her boyfriend, and her baby, Sasha Goldberg decides that getting herself to the United States is the surest path to deliverance. But she finds that life in Phoenix with her Red Lobster-loving fiancé isn't much better than life in Siberia, and so she treks across America on a misadventure-filled search for her long-lost father. Petropolis is a deeply moving story about the unexpected connections that create a family and the faraway places that we end up calling home.

The blurb above might lead you to believe that Petropolis is a darkly humorous satire of American life and the immigrant experience. Well, I think that's what Ulinich was aiming for. And in places, she succeeded. Still, for me it failed to achieve the level of wit and poignancy that seemed always just beyond the author's reach.

Anya Ulinich herself is a Russian immigrant (and it's worth noting that she didn't come to the U.S. as a child, but at age 17, knowing essentially no English, making this debut novel all the more impressive). Her Russian literary upbringing is evident in the details of her writing: the minute descriptions of characters and clothing and houses and food, the absurdities of everyday life, the nuances of speech and observation. While I wouldn't compare her directly to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I could certainly see the influences.

The story is of Alexandra "Sasha" Goldberg, the overweight, biracial Jewish daughter of a domineering mother, a "classical Russian beauty" who fancies her family to be members of the "intelligentsia," despite the fact that they live in crumbling state housing in the decaying Siberian town of Asbestos 2, and a father who was the love child of a Russian university student and a visiting African student during a Soviet-era "Youth Congress." Victor Goldberg was adopted by a pair of scientists, wealthy and prestigious in the pre-Gorbachev era, who died in a car crash, leaving him to spend the rest of his childhood in appalling Soviet orphanages.

The issues (and the unlikely yet believable characters) just pile up. Working through these issues takes the rest of the book. Sasha goes to America, ostensibly on a student visa, as a mail-order bride. She dumps her creepy loser fiancé, flees Arizona, winds up living with crazy, rich Russian immigrants in Chicago, then flees to New York to find her father, who had abandoned his family in Russia years ago.

Petropolis is a bildungsroman, a multi-part character drama, an exploration of racism and immigration and hypocrisy and culture shock, a tragicomedy. It takes a grim and cynical look at Russian and American society with the eye of someone who has lived in both worlds. It does all of these things adequately, and (to my mind) none of them exceptionally well. But I feel in a way that I'm being unfair -- this book was one of my random "read something outside your normal tastes" selections, and while I appreciated its literary qualities, and there were moments that amused or moved me, it's still outside my normal tastes. Maybe it's just me; if this sounds like the sort of story that appeals to you, you'd probably enjoy it much more than I did. I also suspect that for someone who can identify more easily with the protagonist -- Russian immigrants, for example -- there is probably a lot that would ring true and have just the impact Ulinich wanted, while going right past me.

Verdict: A solid novel about a perpetual outsider seeking her true home and family. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, manages not to be depressing, but it just didn't quite do it for me, so the bottom line is that this is very much a YMMV book.
Tags: books, literary, reviews

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