Wednesday, May 14, 2008


A few days ago, a friend instant messaged me from Ukraine. I was terrified. I often email in the language—when I can take the time to check my grammar and spelling—but have never before engaged in a real-time written conversation.

Not only was I trying to remember vocabulary and declensions, but I was also dealing with typing in an entirely different alphabet. My deficiencies were mortifying, and I was sure my friend thought I was a complete moron.

At the same time, I was reading Anya Ulinich’s debut novel Petropolis. Ulinich is a native Russian who migrated to the United States, without speaking any English, when she was 17. The book is delightful, and I was impressed with Ulinich’s control of English—and even more depressed with my own Ukrainian skills.

Granted, Ulinich has now lived in the United States longer than she lived in Russia. Yet, she still deserves credit for absorbing a language to the extent that she can not only write a novel but a good novel, a humorous novel, in that language—something most native speakers could never do.

The novel’s protagonist is Sasha, a Russian girl with African ancestry and a Jewish last name. She struggles to fit into the Soviet mold, particularly in her small Siberian mining town of Asbestos 2 (perhaps the greatest place name ever). Sasha eventually immigrates to Arizona as a mail-order bride and ultimately finds herself in Chicago and New York.

I lived in Arizona for a year and experienced terrible culture shock as an American. Not surprisingly, Sasha experiences similar feelings. Her escapades in both Russia and the United States range from the tragic to the hilarious.

Ulinich is a skilled writer who balances brutal honesty (about both Russians and Americans) with humor. The novel ends a bit too satisfactorily—particularly since it's written by someone raised in the Russian literary tradition—but I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

1 comment:

notaconnoisseur said...

Your latest book sounds intriguing. I am still struggling with my desire to read Canadian while I am here in Toronto. My most recent effort was depressing. It had a Russian ending, I guess, when I would prefer a satisfactory resolution.