A Russian-Jewish family spends a summer in Italy as they wait for their U.S. visas.
In 1987, after waiting nine years to be permitted to emigrate, the 20-year-old author, along with his aunt, grandmother and younger cousin, boarded a plane from Moscow to Vienna. They waited outside the city for several weeks, then moved to a crumbling pensione in the slums behind Rome’s Termini Station, then into an overpriced apartment in the resort town of Ladispoli. Their belongings were shipped to relatives in Providence, R.I., where they eventually settled. Without knowing when their visas would be approved by the U.S. government, they were understandably anxious—the author’s father had difficulty sleeping, and his mother obsessed about the state of their various apartments. But for the author, on the brink of manhood, the European journey was an eye-opening adventure. Given the opportunity to experience a new country for the first time, he wandered the tiny streets of Trastevere, haggling for groceries at the Plaza Vittorio Emmanuelle and relaxing in the Villa Borghese. He also embarked on affairs with an Italian beauty named Rafaella and with an old flame and fellow Russian named Lana. The author’s story provides plenty of fodder for an engaging book—a bored group of Russian émigrés in an Italian beach town, a violinist who smuggles himself into the country via the author’s aunt’s oversized suitcase, the gay Azerbaijani teenager who longs for his lover back in Baku—but Shrayer taints the narrative with oversentimentalization. More importantly, he glosses over the actual meat of the story—the reasons for his family’s emigration—by calling the memories too painful, an admission that is inconsistent with the book’s self-consciously serious tone.
Nostalgia bests storytelling in this meandering memoir.