This nicely constructed and deeply felt novel, which marks the first English-language appearance of a former Russian scientist and translator, deftly observes the interactions of several Russian immigrants in America at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The émigrés are brought together for the last days of Alik, a free-spirited painter (his Last Supper depicts a table laden with 12 pomegranates) who’s slowly dying of an undiagnosed paralytic disease. His wife Nina, a paranoid alcoholic, begs the agnostic Alik to undergo baptism—a ceremony he agrees to discuss with a priest, if a rabbi is also present. As a sweltering heat wave bathes Alik’s rundown Manhattan apartment, his various friends, caregivers, and former lovers come and go (as, in nested flashbacks, Ulitskaya traces their personal histories): Irina, a onetime circus acrobat and freelance exotic dancer, now a lawyer, who quietly pays the blithely destitute Alik’s medical bills; beautiful, lovelorn Valentina, lured to America for what turned out to be a “fictitious” marriage; elderly, gnomelike Maria Ignatevna, a grandmotherly dispenser of “magical powers and contraband herbs”; and Alik’s self-appointed physician Fima, a doctor who can’t pass his US medical exams and works as a lab assistant; and some dozen others. Ulitskaya displays a keen eye for minutiae that vividly reveal character and situational contrasts (“The rabbi sat on the stool . . . which was still warm from the priest’s buttocks”) and images that precisely evoke the experiences of alienation and lostness (such as Alik’s dream in which, forced to hold the leashes of a pack of struggling dogs, he misses a flight and is unable to leave Moscow). And the contrast between Russian stoic fatalism and Americans’ casual sense of their society’s invincibility are spelled out in numerous delicately chosen details, each simultaneously underscoring her characters’ very distinctive personalities.
A perfectly pitched anatomy of the immigrant experience of America: a moving blend of character study, satire, and elegy.