A Russian-Jewish immigrant has a tempestuous and life-altering fling with an American investment banker in Fishbeyn’s debut.
Russian native Elena “Lenochka” Kabelmacher changed her name to Emma Kaulfield because it sounded more American. Her parents and grandmother, Russian Jews who, after a struggle with the KGB, were able to emigrate with Emma and her sister to the U.S., are now, in the late 1990s, wealthy Chicago suburbanites. Emma’s grandmother, the undisputed family tyrant and sage, has decreed that 20-something Emma will pursue a high-achievement career track, studying statistics at N.Y.U. rather than following her true passion, painting. Emma is terrible at statistics, both in academe (she’s flunking) and real life, where she fails to appreciate the odds against finding true love in the ladies’ room of La Cote Basque. Ineffably drawn to a complete stranger with whom she makes out in that very bathroom, Emma assumes that will be the end of it. Then, on an outing with her fiance, fellow émigré Alex (a match made by Grandmother), she re-encounters the stranger: he is Eddie, Alex’s colleague. As she and Alex plan an elaborate Chicago wedding, she and Eddie fall inexorably back into one another’s arms. What’s a girl to do? Eddie promises to support her and let her paint to her heart’s content, but Emma wants to be financially independent; she just isn’t sure how. The most interesting sections of the novel depict family encounters, both in Moscow flashbacks and in '90s Winnetka, wherein the Kabelmachers and their friends one-up each other, overshare, and squabble in two languages, never failing to demonstrate fierce loyalty and unconditional if domineering love. Contrast this with Eddie’s family, which is dysfunctional in a different way (à la Tolstoy?), withholding, undermining, and uncommunicative. What elevates this above the standard rom-com is the language, idiosyncratic, inventive, and ornate, although Fishbeyn's word choices, overworked and/or a little off, often read like a slightly out-of-kilter translation.
A cacophonous but compelling new voice.