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Petropolisby Anya Ulinich
Synopses & Reviews
Sasha Goldberg is the ultimate outsider: she's a chubby, biracial Jewish girl from the Siberian town of Asbestos 2. Her father takes off for the United States, and leaves Sasha to navigate adolescence in a bleak apartment bloc with her overbearing mother. Sasha falls in love with an art school drop-out who lives inside a concrete pipe in the town dump. Following her heart gets her into trouble at home, so she flees Russia as a mail-order bride and lands in suburban Arizona. Sasha manages to escape her Red Lobster-loving fianc? and embarks on a misadventure-filled journey across America in search of her father.
Anya Ulinich has crafted an unforgettable story of familial fault lines, cross-cultural confusion, and the beguiling allure of new beginnings. Petropolis is a funny and poignant debut marking the arrival of a major new voice in fiction.
"Ulinich's debut novel traces Russian-Jewish Sasha Goldberg's screwball coming-of-age and search for her long-ago disappeared father. Sasha, living with her mother, Lubov, in the gloomy Siberian town of Asbestos 2, is a disappointment to Lubov. Not musically inclined and is too chubby for ballet, Sasha is a messy, uncoordinated child with a passion for drawing. After Sasha is accepted into a local, cash-strapped art school, she becomes pregnant and has a daughter, Nadia. Though Sasha wants to raise Nadia, Lubov forces Sasha to attend an art school in Moscow and leave Nadia behind with her. Once in Moscow, Sasha begins scheming her way to America — where she believes her father lives — and soon is on a plane to Phoenix, Ariz., as a 17-year-old mail-order bride. Sasha flees after a year to Chicago, where she works as a live-in maid for the wealthy Tarakan family, though she is little more than the family's 'pet Soviet Jew.' Sasha's salvation lies in Jake Tarakan, the Tarakan's wheelchair-bound 18-year-old son, who helps Sasha locate her father. Though Sasha's mental letters home and some timeline hiccups work against the momentum, cultural assimilation humor is the order of the day, and Ulinich provides it by the bucketful." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Sasha Goldberg, the protagonist of Russian-born Anya Ulinich's striking cross-cultural coming-of-age novel, is different from her uniformly blond schoolmates in the 'proletarian soup' of Asbestos 2, a bleak Siberian village that was once an administrative center for the Soviet gulag. Sasha is clumsy and plump, with 'yellow, freckled' skin and frizzy hair, thanks to a chance encounter between her paternal... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) grandmother and an African athlete. When she is 10, her father deserts the family to flee to America. At 15, Sasha has a baby, whom she abandons to her mother, while she herself flies off to Phoenix as a 'mail-order bride from Siberia.' She never marries the dorky Intel technician who has paid for her visa and passage. Instead she sets out for Chicago as the live-in maid and 'pet Soviet Jew' of the ostentatiously wealthy and highly eccentric Trakans. She plans to track down her errant father, but Mr. Trakan aims to thwart her by confiscating her visa, while Mrs. Trakan force-feeds her the Torah, 'the most tedious thing Sasha had ever read.' With the help of their crippled son Jake, she escapes to pursue her father. 'Petropolis' was the poet Osip Mandelstam's name for St. Petersburg, called Petrograd during much of the time he lived there, Leningrad afterward. His poem of that name, quoted in full by Sasha, laments the death of a 'star,' a great and beautiful city: 'The wax of immortality is melting/ O, if you are a star, Petropolis, your city,/ Your brother, Petropolis, is dying.' But how does this apply to Sasha's experience? 'In Osip Mandelstam's view,' Ulinich writes, 'Asbestos 2 would be a postapocalyptic place,' an 'ugly little town with a miserable name,' hardly a star. On the other hand, the empty urban sprawl of Phoenix seems to Sasha like a site of alien abduction, bearable only because of air conditioning. The Trakans' lavish mansion is presented as a capitalist extravaganza, a gilded cage for Sasha, who sees nothing of Chicago except the temple on holidays. Brooklyn's Borough Park, where she comes to terms with her father and his family and starts her career as a cleaning lady, hasn't much star quality either. But, at the novel's end, when Sasha's mother dies in Russia, grotesquely frozen at her desk in the local library, her photo appears in the papers with the caption 'Your brother, Asbestos 2, is dying' — a mocking reference to the wretched economic conditions of the Siberian north. The point appears to be that for Sasha there is no ideal to mourn. Life is mundane — and then you freeze — but meanwhile you cope, with an ironic eyebrow raised. This point is a little muddled, as is the last third of this novel. For many chapters, its concentration is entirely on Sasha, a wise child whose clear-eyed but limited takes on the town, her parents, her school, her first love (father of her child), and later America, come across as original, droll and, in the case of the outrageous Trakans, stretching to farce. But as Sasha grows up, the author opens up the novel, abandoning the narrow view to other characters. The vivid early portraits that caught the imagination — the old man's art class in Asbestos 2, a home in a dump, the Trakans' bizarre Chicago lifestyle — give way to more generic, new-immigrant descriptions of cultural difficulties. Only intermittently, as when she returns to Asbestos 2 to visit her mother and daughter, do we recapture Sasha's original keen eye. As the novel scatters and loses focus, so does the reader's attention. Even Sasha's reintroduction to — possibly — a genuine Prince Charming, set to rescue her from a lifetime as a Feng Shui Maid, seems underdeveloped and a little pat. Maybe that is why her mother's death seems far-fetched, a jagged grotesquerie incongruously piercing everyday life. Still, not many novels take us to ugly but exotic Siberian towns, or even to ugly, exotic Arizona sprawl, let alone to millionaires' Chicago fantasias. This young heroine has sharp vision and a pragmatic view of life's difficulties — together with a pointed sense of irony. Sasha will get by — that seems certain — and it seems equally certain that Anya Ulinich will be back." Reviewed by Chrissie Dickinson, a writer, musician and songwriter based in ChicagoCarolyn See, who may be reached at www.carolynsee.comDonna Rifkind, who reviews fiction frequently for The Washington PostPatrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.comAlice Turner, a former fiction editor of Playboy, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A beautiful, far-ranging voice equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic...Anya Ulinich's satiric romp gives new meaning to the word 'bittersweet.'" Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan
"How did she do it? Anya Ulinich has written — and in a second language, no less — a smashing debut, at once a deeply moving coming-of-age odyssey and a globe-spanning satire of societies gone desperately and hilariously awry. I loved Petropolis for its bone-dry humor, eye-popping authenticity, and vividly realized characters. Most of all, I loved Sasha Goldberg. Through its darkest and most comic moments, this book made me very, very happy." Katherine Shonk, author of The Red Passport
"For a girl from a bleak Siberian town, Ulinich's protagonist Sasha Goldberg has a surprisingly big heart and a hysterical view of life in America. Petropolis is a compassionate and unusual novel about motherhood, immigration, and religious fanaticism." Laura Dave, author of London Is The Best City In America
"Ulinich is unflinchingly funny, sensitive, and a superb new talent." Akhil Sharma, author of An Obedient Father)
"Petropolis is a real feast of sharp wit, quirky characters and amazing situations." Lara Vapnyar, author of Memoirs of a Muse and There Are Jews in My House
"A dark irresistible comedy with an authentic Russian voice." Martin Cruz Smith, author of Gorky Park and Stalin's Ghost
"Ulinich has written fresh and nervy social satire in the spirit, if not quite with the power, of Tom Wolfe, Aleksandar Hemon, Gish Jen, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar." Chicago Tribune
"Petropolis is engaging, funny and genuinely moving in all the right places. It is a sparkling debut, a unique comic novel." Los Angeles Times
"Ulinich has a keen literary sensibility that brings forth the pathos of her heroine's quest without indulging in bathos." San Francisco Chronicle
"Ulinich's first novel...tackles many difficult issues: motherhood, an immigrant's desperate attempts to escape her family and her country, both racial and national identity, and the lengths to which people will go to get by in this world." Library Journal
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.
About the Author
Anya Ulinich was seventeen when her family left Moscow and immigrated to the United States. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago and received an MFA in painting from the University of California. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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