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Growing up in Siberia

Well, it isn't "War and Peace," but Anya Ulinich's marvelous debut novel is distinctively Russian.

Beginning in a post-Glasnost hovel in a mining town named Asbestos 2, the novel follows the sometimes hilarious adventures of its heroine, a biracial Jewish girl named Sasha Goldberg, as she tries again and again to escape to a better life.

Sasha's mother, Lubov Alexandrovna Goldberg, wants her daughter to become a member of the intelligentsia, so she pushes her through a series of tryouts for dancing and singing lessons. The chubby teen can't cope, but she does have artistic talent and ends up after school in a sordid, financially doomed art institution. There she enters into a furtive relationship with a fellow student and has a baby girl. The father is a pale ghost of a boy who lives in the town dump. Sasha is 15 years old at this point, and Lubov takes the baby from her to raise herself.

Sasha flees to Moscow and soon signs up with the Kupid's Korner bridal agency, where she agrees to become engaged to an American named Neil. Yet another disaster. She flies to the States to be with him, but even though Neil's Crown Victoria "is as long as Sasha Goldberg's whole life," her time in Paradise Valley, Arizona, is very brief.

Her next stop is Chicago, where she becomes the "pet Soviet Jew" in a wealthy Jewish household. She is held in a kind of captive servitude (her passport having been hidden from her) but she makes a dear friend in Jake Tarrakon, the disabled son of the family she lives with. All this time she continues to try to deal with the agony of her separation from her little girl, Nadia.

She becomes angry at the cruel work load and loss of freedom in her present life.

Jake helps her to escape to Brooklyn, where she proceeds to search for the father who deserted her and the family when Sasha was a small girl.

Sasha's is a tale of amazing courage and resilience. She faces down hopelessness with a droll humor that never seems to fail her. And her version of American life is very, very funny.

(Anya Ulinich immigrated to America from Russia with her family when she was 17. Her fine first novel was written in her second language, which makes the accomplishment even more astonishing.)

Sally Fiedler is a Buffalo poet.

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