Sunday, May 29, 2011

Wasted potential

Book: Petropolis

Author: Anya Ulinich

Publication: 2007 (Viking)

Pages: 324

There are two ways to make me instantly hand over book-buying money without asking any further questions.
  1.  Write a coming-of-age novel about an immigrant child with a flair for sticking out even in her hometown and a habit of sprinkling her native language overseas and a tired, single mother who doesn’t understand her daughter or their new world but does what she can to keep both alive.
  2. Write a novel about a dysfunctional family that never talks about how dysfunctional it is.

If either synopsis is on your book flap (ideally next to your author photo in which you prove you can wear a fedora and not look stupid), I’m yours. At least until I get home, settle into my reading chair, and gradually discover how you can ruin my favorite two storylines in the whole world of literature.
  1. Make your immigrant child stick out for superficial purposes, like a skin color that betrays an unaccepted cultural background—actually, you’re still okay at this point. But don’t give her an ounce of fight against what she can’t help. St. Francis de Sales* forbid you might actually make this a source of her spunkiness instead of turning her boring and having most people ignore what you say is a big deal until your protagonist makes it to Brooklyn and has to deal with racist old people who can’t tell she’s black anyway. </sarcasm> I like Petropolis’s story about Sasha, who grows up in Russia under a strict mother, has a lovechild, then goes to America as a mail-order fiancĂ© and runs away from that to find her long-lost dad. Sasha herself bores me to tears.
  2. Have an excellent first half exploring the idiosyncrasies of a Yale research psychologist and his rich female college discovering a medication for depression from a tropical plant, how this affects his career and how his career trajectory affects him and his intelligent-but-stuck-at-home wife and their kids. Add a depressed genius freshman who gets much more suave, then deranged, on his dose of the trial medication. Add a bushfull of escaped parrots. And then, in the second half, change to first person but get less personal (how does that even work?) and devolve into a very generic “We all fuck each other up” family mess. I’m looking at you, Pharmakon.

Gah. Dull books are for freshmen English classes, and even that’s cruel. 

*Patron saint of writers and editors. I’m sort of far from Catholic, but I want someone specific to swear to.


  1. Show me a living author in a fedora not looking stupid.

  2. It's a difficult process that consists of combing through a crapton of publicity photos because I've yet to see one in the wild.