Wednesday, January 7, 2009

REVIEW: Petropolis, by Anya Ulinich

Petropolis, by Anya Ulinich. Published 2007 by Viking Adult. Literary Fiction.

Petropolis is a satiric novel about a young woman named Sasha who grows up in a post-Soviet backwater town called Asbestos 2, has a child and emigrates to the United States as a mail-order bride in search of her father, who has abandoned the family. Her travels take her from the southwest to Chicago and finally New York, where she ends up forming her own family- unconventional and unusual, but somehow unmistakeably right.

When I read Ellen Litman's wonderful book of short stories The Last Chicken in America, about Russian-Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia I was reminded of Sasha but Ulinich is comical where Litman is bittersweet. There is a story in Litman's book where the main character, Masha, is working for a religious Jewish family that observes kashrut and expects her to take up the mantle of religious Judaism as they have; Masha's response is tired frustration at their inability to understand that for her being Jewish has never meant wanting to be religious: "It meant classmates calling you names. It meant a line on your passport, schools that would never accept you, jobs you couldn't have. It meant leaflets and threats and a general on TV promising pogroms in May. It meant immigration." In a chapter of Petropolis called "The Captive of the Talmud" Sasha goes to work for a religious family whose idea of charity is imprisoning her in their home and putting her to work as an (unpaid) maid. The mother of the family, Mrs. Tarakan, calls her "honey" but speaks to her with condescension- "It's the Sabbath, sweetie. Jewish people don't work on the Sabbath"- then locks her in the house. Sasha's reactions to expressions of religion are more prosaic than Masha's. "Sasha noticed that all the prayers started with 'Barukh ata Adonai.' She thought about adenoids and long winter colds, the smell of Tiger Blam in stuffy rooms." Both Litman and Ulinich portray Russian Jews alienated from religion and from the Americans who expect them to embrace it, but Litman sticks to realism where Ulinich turns satirical.

And it's this satiric tone and blase determination that characterizes Sasha's story. As she travels across the country, finding her way from place to place with the help of friends and acquaintances, whatever drama she encounters does nothing to deter her from her mission- finding her father. Her father, Victor, is a biracial Russian Jew who marries Sasha's mother while hospitalized, then escapes to the United States and disappears. Sasha, meanwhile, has to forge a life as best she can with a domineering mother and an absent father, getting along on pluck and opportunism. She feels instinctively that if she can find him, everything will be alright. And in a way, she's right.

Her pluck eventually lands her in New York, where the various elements of her life come together to form something wholly different from what she ever expected. Petropolis isn't as rollicking as Gary Shteyngart's brilliant post-Soviet satire Absurdistan or as understated and grounded as Ellen Litman's book, but it's something in between- it's a solid, funny, page-turning comic novel combining a winning heroine with a plot as meandering as real life. Sasha is smart, brave and real, and once you meet her you'll want to stick around to see how she, and her cavalcade of friends and family, all turn out. Trust me- you'll enjoy the ride.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


bermudaonion said...

I'm glad I read your great review - for some reason I thought this was a graphic novel.

Lenore Appelhans said...

bermuda, you were probably thinking of Persopolis. I mixed up the two at first too.

I was lucky enough to hear the author read a bit of this and loved it. Daniel got this as a Christmas gift too (in German).

bermudaonion said...

I just figured out why I thought it was a graphic novel - I confused the title with Persepolis.

LorMil said...

What a great review, Marie!

The Bookworm said...

great review, it does sound very good. I hadnt heard of this before.

LisaMay said...

When I first saw this I too confused it with Persepolis. Sounds interesting though!

Anonymous said...

This sounds like just the book I've been searching for to give a friend as a birthday present - thank you!

Anna said...

I really enjoyed reading this review. This sounds like a book I'd like.

Diary of an Eccentric