Michael's Reviews > Petropolis

Petropolis by Anya Ulinich
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's review
Jun 13, 2008

really liked it
Read in June, 2008

This is a strong debut from an author who shows herself to be, above all, an excellent storyteller. It is at its heart the story of a woman--Sasha Goldberg, a teenage, dark-skinned, Russian Jew raised in a forgotten and eroding Soviet town called Asbestos 2--trying to find a place for herself in the world. Some might call it a coming-of-age piece, taking place as it does in Sasha's late teens, but I think it is more aptly described as an immigrant's story, one of seeking a home.

What makes this such an effective story about immigration is its depiction of so many facets of the immigration picture. We see Sasha's father, Victor, disappear to America when Sasha is only a little girl, and he is not heard from again--indeed, Sasha's mother pretends as if he never existed. We also learn later of Victor's refusal to speak Russian when at home in America, his desire to avoid the whole Russian community of New York. The book also covers mail-order brides and overzealous philanthropists who have made the immigration of Russian Jews a pet project but for all of the wrong reasons. We see Sasha's mother refuse the opportunity to go to America, and we meet women who must leave their children behind to immigrate in search of better lives and better opportunities for those children in the future. We deal with racism, degrees of assimilation, and cultural clashes (like when Sasha's American boyfriend ignorantly presents her with a Lenin pin as a piece of Soviet kitsch.

In short, we get it all; and it's done with a great balance, tone, and voice throughout. Of course, what makes any story powerful is the strength of the characters involved, and the characters in this book certainly grab the reader's attention. There is a full range of loveable and detestable characters that I won't even get into, but Ulinich's development of those characters is mostly very well done, and the characters are, for the most part, accessible to the reader and interesting to meet.

I do question somewhat the author's portrayal of motherhood; it seems that nowhere in the book are there any but the most dysfunctional mother-child relationships, and I would have liked to have seen a bit more range. I felt the same way when it came to the author's depiction of most marriages in the book. I was left feeling that the author had simply had deeply injurious experiences of her own with both subjects--motherhood and marriage--and the inevitable dysfunction of these relationships distracted me rather than interested me. They seemed not to reflect the real world but rather some limited and very negative experience of the author. That may just be me, but I thought while the author was good at creating characters, she was not always great at developing the relationships between charcters. That is the only niggling piece that distracts from what is overall a very nicely done story and worth the read.

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