One only has to hear the name of Sasha Goldberg's hometown Asbestos 2 to understand the grimness of the life she faces growing up there. In her debut novel, Russian-born Anya Ulinich offers a sometimes comic, consistently heartfelt story about a young woman laying the foundation for life in a new land as she takes the first tentative steps toward adulthood. Petropolis opens in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lubov Alexandrovna Goldberg, the town librarian, is determined to help her daughter escape the crushing poverty of their Siberian home. Her efforts are almost derailed when Sasha gives birth to a baby at the age of 15, but she enrolls her daughter in a Moscow art school, hoping that will be the start of a new career. Sasha has other plans, and with the aid of Kupid's Korner, an agency that finds Russian brides for Americans, she soon arrives in Arizona. Sasha's stay with her fiancÅ½ Neal is brief. She flees to Chicago, where she lands in the home of a wealthy Jewish family whose bizarre art collection is matched only by their devotion to charitable causes. All the while, Sasha searches for her father, Victor, who deserted the family when Sasha was 10 and now lives in Brooklyn with his American wife and young son. When she finds him, Sasha's prickly relationship with her stepmother, Heidi, serves as the springboard to the character-defining choices both women will make at the end of the novel. Through periodic trips back to Asbestos 2, Sasha also nurtures a tentative connection with Nadia, the child she left behind. Soon, the blessing and burden of raising Nadia will be hers alone.
Like much of Russian literature, Petropolis is stuffed with a cast of colorful characters who swirl around Sasha as she works her way painfully toward both self-knowledge and a better life. This novel, as do most good ones, leaves readers feeling they've accompanied the protagonist on a rewarding journey, while still wondering what lies ahead for her.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.