Sasha Goldberg, a mixed-race Russian Jew, lives with her mother in Asbestos 2, once a Stalinist model town but now only a place from which to escape. Lubov, Sasha’s domineering mother, is determined that despite the mediocrity of their surroundings, her daughter will have all the benefits of a bourgeois upbringing.
Too pudgy for ballet and with no musical gifts, Sasha’s only talent is for art, so she undertakes art lessons in a damp apartment block basement. There she discovers passion, falling in love with an art-school dropout who lives in a concrete pipe in the dump outside town. Their brief romance leads to pregnancy and outrage from Lubov.
Determined that her daughter will still have a chance at success, Lubov takes baby Nadia as her own and sends Sasha off to art school in Moscow. Sasha is not at home at the art school, for her mother cheated and sent in the dropout’s art work and claimed it was Sasha’s. In a bid to escape and find the father who left her behind, Sasha signs up as a mail-order bride and lands in Arizona as the teenage bride of an old-fashioned Russian. Each step Sasha takes to carve a new life for herself leads to increasingly absurd realities, and Sasha’s journey becomes a surreal modern-day Odyssey as she seeks her father and ultimately herself.
Petropolis is the debut novel of Anya Ulinich, and readers may be forgiven for the belief that much of this novel is autobiographical. Like Sasha, Anya immigrated to the United States from Russia when she was 17, learned English (like Sasha) from watching TV, and attended art school. The assumption that this is merely a memoir masquerading as a novel does Ulinich’s writing a great disservice, not only because Petropolis is a biting satire of the coming-of-age novel as a genre but also because she writes black, screwball comedy so incredibly well, especially when one remembers she is writing in her second language.
Petropolis, while certainly containing a great deal of immigrant humor, quickly moves beyond the stereotypical into parody and farce. Ulinich pushes readers beyond their comfort zone but never sinks into Borat-style humor. The extreme situations are designed to throw startling light on the hopelessness of life in Siberia and the overwhelming desperation Sasha feels to escape. Coming of age in this situation is not a journey of self-discovery but rather a desperate attempt to find a way to merely exist, outside the servitude to poverty’s daily grind.
While Petropolisis mainly a commentary on the immigrant experience, it also presents an unique look at mother-daughter relationships. Ulinich seems to be addressing a fundamental question: “What affect will extreme poverty and a wish for a better future for your child have on the parent-child relationship?” Lubov is desperate for her daughter to escape life in Asbestos 2, and the decisions she makes appear hard and without consideration for Sasha’s dreams. As Sasha grows through her experiences, she is able to develop some understanding of her mother’s motivation, and this gradual melting of the ice between them is one of the truly heart-wrenching aspects of the novel.
Ulinich prevents her novel from devolving into slapstick by maintaining Sasha’s fundamental humanity at the center. Sasha, like many immigrants, is a survivor, and her ability to maintain hope, no matter what life throws at her, is what makes her such a mesmerizing heroine. Readers will find themselves deeply enamored of Sasha for her dry wit, her unique perspective on all things American, and her huge heart.