Saturday, January 31, 2015

Panic in a Suitcase

18693848In this account of two decades in the life of an immigrant household, the fall of communism and the rise of globalization are artfully reflected in the experience of a single family. Ironies, subtle and glaring, are revealed: the Nasmertovs left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, with a huge sense of finality, only to find that the divide between the old world and the new is not nearly as clear-cut as they thought. The dissolution of the Soviet Union makes returning just a matter of a plane ticket, and the Russian-owned shops in their adopted neighborhood stock even the most obscure comforts of home. Pursuing the American Dream once meant giving up everything, but does the dream still work if the past is always within reach?

If the Nasmertov parents can afford only to look forward, learning the rules of aspiration, the family’s youngest, Frida, can only look back.

In striking, arresting prose loaded with fresh and inventive turns of phrase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya has written the first great novel of Brighton Beach: a searing portrait of hope and ambition, and a profound exploration of the power and limits of language itself, its ability to make connections across cultures and generations.

*May Contain Spoilers*

Yelena Akhtiorskaya shares a prose novel full of humor, irony, and misshapen characters with Panic in a Suitcase. Divided into two parts, 1993 and 2008, Akhtiorskaya focuses on two members of the Nasmertov family: Frida and Pasha. As readers come to know the family, these two, an uncle and his niece, stand out as the ones who create familial panic with their physical and emotional suitcases. 

Pasha is a poet. He's the only original Nasmertov family member who hasn't immigrated from Odessa to Brighton Beach. (I'm not counting his wife and son as they are never included in the immigration discussion) Pasha lives in a world of writing built by ignoring others and procrastination. With his visit to the United States, readers will find an odd sense of humor in Pasha, as if he were a joke without a punchline. You're supposed to laugh but you never know where or when exactly. 

Frida takes the stage in part two, 2008, as she is older and attending medical school. She's always been bratty, quick to anger and stubborn as hell. But she's trying to find her own way in life without any helpful direction. She becomes the equal opposite of Pasha as she travels to Odessa from Brighton Beach, giving the novel a beautiful balance with various definitions of 'home.' Readers will struggle to understand Frida in a way that they feel a bond with her. Standing at the cusp of adulthood and adult decisions. 

Akhtiorskaya writes her characters in such an unforgiving and honest way that readers will revel in her descriptions and analogies. She sees the world in objects and compares life, people, and relationships in terms of material. Her prose is a gorgeous ride of the imagination with twists and outbursts, only sometimes appropriate. 

The novel, as stated previously, is divided into two parts. Part one focuses on Pasha and his family attempting to convince him to immigrate to Brighton Beach with them. His family is there and they are happier (though it may seem false and overdone). His mother, Esther, is also fighting cancer and the family believes Pasha should be there to help. Part two switches focus to Frida, who has just finished her first year in medical school. She returns to Brighton Beach to spend the break with her family. When she learns that her cousin, Sanya, is getting married in Odessa, Frida insists that she travel back home for the wedding. Climatically speaking, not much happens in this book. There's definitely a story arc but it's focused on feelings, reactions, and situational anxiety of the family. Readers who enjoy prose and the beauty found in a perfect turn of phrase will enjoy Panic in a Suitcase, though the characters may be too elusive for connections.

Rating: 2.5/5 Cups

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