From Publishers Weekly
Ulinich's debut novel traces Russian-Jewish Sasha Goldberg's screwball coming-of-age and search for her long-ago disappeared father. Sasha, living with her mother, Lubov, in the gloomy Siberian town of Asbestos 2, is a disappointment to Lubov. Not musically inclined and is too chubby for ballet, Sasha is a messy, uncoordinated child with a passion for drawing. After Sasha is accepted into a local, cash-strapped art school, she becomes pregnant and has a daughter, Nadia. Though Sasha wants to raise Nadia, Lubov forces Sasha to attend an art school in Moscow and leave Nadia behind with her. Once in Moscow, Sasha begins scheming her way to America—where she believes her father lives—and soon is on a plane to Phoenix, Ariz., as a 17-year-old mail-order bride. Sasha flees after a year to Chicago, where she works as a live-in maid for the wealthy Tarakan family, though she is little more than the family's "pet Soviet Jew." Sasha's salvation lies in Jake Tarakan, the Tarakan's wheelchair-bound 18-year-old son, who helps Sasha locate her father. Though Sasha's mental letters home and some timeline hiccups work against the momentum, cultural assimilation humor is the order of the day, and Ulinich provides it by the bucketful. (Feb.)
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*Starred Review* When a coming-of-age novel is truly different, it can send shock waves through unsuspecting readers. This brave blend of satire, farce, and heart-wrenching realism delivers the necessary voltage to do just that. First-novelist Ulinich sets out as if she intends to lampoon the whole idea of coming-of-age. Teenager Sasha Goldberg, a pudgy parody of the archetypal outsider, is a mixed-race Russian Jew living with her mother in a mining camp called Asbestos 2, once a Stalinist model town but now a postglasnost embarrassment. When your entire universe, internal and external, needs escaping from, the very notion of escape becomes a bad joke. So it is for Sasha ("For a Jew, you sure look like a Negro," one of her friends tells her), whose every attempt at escape leads to an even more absurd reality than the one she left behind. A furtive romance results in pregnancy, but when her mother usurps the baby, Sasha decamps to America as a mail-order bride, landing in Arizona with an old-school husband whose Crown Victoria "is as long as Sasha Goldberg's whole life." From there it's off to Chicago, where, as the "pet Soviet Jew" of a rich Orthodox couple, Sasha trades one kind of servitude for another. One more escape lands our heroine in Brooklyn, in search of her father, who abandoned the family when she was an infant. Ulinich plays this absurdist immigrant's journey for all its black-comedic potential, but she never loses sight of Sasha's bedrock humanity. Her triumphs are attenuated at every turn by lingering levels of despair, but her ability to find a pulse of life in even the most outrageous turns of fortune lifts the novel as far beyond parody as it is beyond convention. Bill Ott
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