Home > Book Reviews > PETROPOLIS by Anya Ulinich

PETROPOLIS by Anya Ulinich


A solid debut about a biracial Russian girl from a remote Siberian village making her way to America and discovering her identity. Yes, this book has received phenomenal reviews, but it’s not flawless.

I found the characterization a bit weak, the people mere props to illustrate, albeit vividly, the realities of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, the immigrant circles of hell in America, the ironies of the rich philantropic Westerners. But ultimately, I could neither see what the characters looked like, nor grasp what was driving them. For example, the protagonist, Sasha, is initially described as having yellow freckled skin and auburn hair. So how does this translate to negrityanka (a black woman), which is how everyone sees her in the United States? Why does her family insist on being Jewish? Her father, adopted into a Jewish family, carries on the name Goldberg, though neither he nor his future wife have anything to do with Judaism. In Russia, where even “pure-bred” Jews tried to Russify themselves at any opportunity, this would have been highly unlikely. Also, the long and somewhat cumbersome backstory inserts are heavyhanded. Ulinich is a strong, often elegant writer and she could have found a way to weave these segments into the narrative more deftly.

All that notwithstanding, the book is an enjoyable read. Ulinich’s prose is vivid and her plot is fast paced. And she does have scenes of luminous beauty: the fetus forming, the newscast Sasha watches in New York, Mrs. Goldberg’s death. I would definitely recommend this book and look forward to more work from this very talented newcomer.

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