Comic portrait of modern American life from an outsider’s perspective—but first, 80-odd pages about life in Siberia.
Ulinich’s debut gets off to a glum start. Sasha is a bright teenage girl who’s shy, overweight and curious about what happened to her father, a biracial man who left for America years before. More than anything, she’s eager to get out of her hometown of Asbestos 2, where heavy drinking passes for entertainment and the only thing that smacks of culture is the art school in the basement of a decrepit Soviet-era building. A local ne’er-do-well gets Sasha pregnant, but her mother is willing to care for the baby if Sasha pursues further art training in Moscow. A flop as a student and barred from returning home, she signs on with a mail-order-bride service, which lands her in Phoenix. From there, the novel chronicles Sasha’s travels through the U.S. and the motley folks she encounters: Neal, the controlling man who selected her from the bridal service; Marina, the fellow immigrant who helps her escape to Chicago; the wealthy family that hires her as a maid; and finally, in Brooklyn, her father. Ulinich wants to balance serious themes of Jewishness, motherhood and the immigrant experience with more lighthearted depictions of American life, and she does well in scrutinizing the upper reaches of the class structure: There are thoughtful passages about rich, New-Agey Brooklynites and the hypocrisy of wealthy Chicago do-gooders who take Sasha in. But other portions feel underdeveloped and full of airy dialogue, and Ulinich seems uncertain about how much emphasis to give the themes of race and religion. In the process, Sasha ultimately becomes more a sounding board for others’ quirks than a fully developed character. Still, the final chapters are filled with some nicely detailed observations about her two homelands—and alienation in general—that somewhat salvages the book from its flaws.
Admirably ambitious, if clunky, coming-of-age fare.