Books

Notes from Asbestos 2: Petropolis

By Anya Ulinich, Penguin, 2007, 324 pages, $14

Jewish, biracial and graceless, Sasha Goldberg doesn't fit into the small Russian town of Asbestos 2. Anya Ulinich's enjoyable debut novel Petropolis chronicles Sasha's transformation from sweet, awkward kid in post-Soviet Siberia to runaway mail-order bride in Brooklyn. It's a quirky, entertaining read about growing up and getting wise as a teen immigrant, and it manages to move the reader without sentimentality or easy answers.

Sixteen-year-old Sasha finds refuge from schoolyard pummelings when she is accepted at Asbestos 2's only art class. Here she finally meets a friend and, through her, a lover. Alexey is a little older than Sasha. He's also a drunk and a “barrel person,” one of those whose family was housed in a concrete tube when shipped to Siberia to mine the asbestos. But he's the best artist in town – and he's hot. “He had a cold sore on his lower lip,” Ulinich tells us, “and when he touched it with his tongue, Sasha Goldberg forgot to breathe.”

Up to this point in the book, Petropolis has the funny, pathetic sweetness of David Sedaris's accounts of childhood. But with the ignorance of a people living in a pile of asbestos, pregnancy was inevitable, and the book darkens. Forced to give up her child to her mother, Sasha's maternal misery propels her into the manicured hands of Kupid's Korner dating agency, and from there it's a short trip to Phoenix, Arizona and a life of daytime TV and dinners at the Red Lobster with her bland new fiance. Her journey continues as she flees to Chicago in an immigrant's odyssey of longing, toughening, and housecleaning.

Ulinich herself emigrated from Russia when she was 17, and with an outsider's eye she levels criticism at some of America's foibles, from the decadence and insanity of the ultra-rich to the hipster's light-minded taste for Soviet kitsch. Her first novel is not perfect – Sasha's changes in personality are sometimes surprising, even inorganic. But the glimpses of the tangled lives of the characters surrounding Sasha are brave and uncompromising. The novel is filled with familial tension and explores motherhood from an honest, anxious angle. Ultimately, Ulinich's witty, moody tale is both accessible and engrossing, an easy and affecting read that will take you to Siberia and back. Dress warmly and mail-order yourself a copy of Petropolis.