Book Review: Petropolis
Ulinich, Anya. Petropolis. Penguin Group, 2008.
Sasha Goldberg, the smart protagonist of Anya Ulinich’s debut novel, Petropolis, is a biracial teen growing up in a small rundown town in Siberia. The town which was originally called Stalinsk and built as an administrative center for the Gulag has long since sunk into dire poverty and is now known merely called Asbestos 2 after the mineral that was discovered there. Asbestos 2 in fact, was named after Asbestos, “a larger town in the Ural Mountains, where asbestos was also mined, the weather was milder, and one could occasionally buy beef in stores,” Ulinich writes.
Much against her will, Sasha pursues art lessons, makes friends with a fellow student Katia, and soon suffers a teen crush on the friend’s older brother, an art dropout named Alexey. Soon enough, to her mother’s horror, Sasha gets pregnant at 15 and a bleak life gets bleaker still with very few options. Using fake documents, Sasha’s mother insists on taking care of baby Nadia and ships Sasha off to an exclusive school in Moscow to complete her studies.
But Sasha has other plans. She applies to a mail-order bridal agency and when an American, Neal from Phoenix, Arizona, shows interest in her, she is instructed to only order breaded food when they go out on their first date. Soon, Sasha is in the United States but her existence in Phoenix gets stifling and Sasha decides to escape going first to Chicago and somehow becoming a housemaid in an very rich Jewish household. Here Sasha, who is not really attuned to her Jewish identity in Russia, is portrayed as the victim of religious persecution-an image that sits uneasily with her. Forever trapped in the huge house, she finally escapes from here too with the help of Jake Tarakan, the family’s paraplegic son. This time Sasha decides to find her father, Victor Goldberg, who abandoned her mother and herself many years ago after emigrating to the United States. Incidentally Victor Goldberg is a product of a white Russian woman and an African man and Sasha herself struggles with her biracial identity for quite a while in her teen years.
Petropolis shows a lot of promise but its plot lines seem jolting quite often. While Sasha’s initial start in Asbestos 2 is fairly absorbing, her sudden move to the United States and her subsequent travels all over the map, don’t have much going for them. The characters she meets be it her husband Neale in Phoenix, or fellow Russian immigrants in New York, are not developed fully mainly because the reader doesn’t spend enough time with them before traveling somewhere else.
That having been said, there are also many moments of genuine warmth in Petropolis. When Sasha goes back to Asbestos 2 from the United States, Ulinich portrays Sasha’s mixed feelings toward her child beautifully. Also done well is the tender yet shaky romance that develops between Sasha and Jake.
While Petropolis might often be pitched as a novel about finding oneself in America or as immigrant lit, such classifications might miss the more subtle one that Ulinich beautifully describes in the book. At its heart Petropolis is very much about the conflict between the old Russia and the new. The book’s best portrayal is that of Sasha’s overbearing mother, Lubov Goldberg, who is a classic example of the Russian intelligentsia clinging to desperate crumbs of the high class style overlooking the reality of the extreme poverty in their lives. “Children of the intelligentsia don’t just come home in the afternoon and engage in idiocy,” she tells her daughter, forcing her to sign up for art classes.
Sasha, however, is a post-Soviet kid worried more about her mixed-race identity than about being a “child of the intelligentsia.” Ulinich, in drawing out the conflict between mother and daughter, also subtly sheds light on the difference between the old Russia and the new. Lubov Goldberg is a wonderfully sketched character clinging to romantic visions of the old Russia even when she is just about the last resident in the ghost town that is now Asbestos 2. Her assertions of class keep her going even until the very end when she is caught dead bent over a book of poems in an abandoned library, displaying a set of perfectly manicured fingers.