UYC’s Book Club: Panic In A Suitcase

Perhaps the biggest plus of being in an actual book club versus reading a book solo is the advantage of hearing multiple viewpoints.  While this month’s read of Panic in a Suitcase was a bit sluggish to get through for me (ok, let’s just call a spade a spade: it was by far my least favorite read of our NYC book club, and the only thing that kept me picking it up day after day was knowing I was obliged to go to book club.  So, there’s that.), but, other ladies in the club really enjoyed it!  They found humor in the dialogue, even!  Thought it was an immigrant story of the modern ages that, in fact, needed to be told.  So I implore you: don’t judge the book by my humble opinion, pick it up for yourself and see if you’re on Team Love It or Team Hate It…there won’t be much in between, I promise you that;-)

unnamedHere’s a summary from Amazon:

A dazzling debut novel about a Russian immigrant family living in Brooklyn and their struggle to learn the new rules of the American Dream.

In 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.

Discussion time!

1. A big theme in the book was that of “bringing the past with you.”  When Pasha arrived in Brooklyn all he saw was a mini Odessa recreated on the shores of this new land, and this depressed him more than anything else.  Do you agree or disagree with Pasha’s viewpoint?

I feel like this is a bit of a delicate topic here in NYC, no?  I mean, on one hand, I’d say unless you were forced out of your country against your will to live abroad (different story, completely), then it was in fact your choice to come to NY to make a new life for yourself and your family.  There’s a quote by Beryl Markham that goes, “If you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved, and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can”.  While, yes, there is comfort in having familiar things around you as you had in your homeland (the same restaurants, the same food, speaking your native language), and these ethnic neighborhoods are what gives NYC its life pulse, I can also see Pasha’s point.  If you’re constantly yearning for the homeland, will you ever find true happiness in the present?  After all, nostalgia is nothing more than a mild case of depression, right?

2. The author chose not to use typical dialogue in her novel…no quotation marks to signify if the characters were speaking aloud or in their heads.  How was this experience for you, the reader?

Honestly, this was the last thing that bothered me about this book.  Her writing style was fine, but the fact that there was very little plot and her characters were exceptionally unlikable bothered me much more than her lack of quotation marks.  I got the feeling that she was directing this debut novel to be a big hit with the NY Times critics (obviously well done, bravo on that front!), but wasn’t thinking much about her average reader.

3. Why do you think the author chose to call the book Panic In A Suitcase?

This was one part of the novel I thought she got right.  The characters were so disorganized and scattered that every time they were coming or going, whether in Brooklyn or Odessa or upstate weekend getaways, there was such chaos and pointless talking from all parties involved…migraine inducing!  I would have gone running in the opposite direction as far as humanly possible.  Which does pose the interesting question…since this is rumored to be a bit of a fictional tale based on real life, is that exactly what author Yelena Akhtiorskaya did?  I sure hope so.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book below, and make sure to join us next month for our discussion on Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion, which we’ll hold on the blog on Thursday, February 12th. Between now and then feel free to share your thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #UYCBookclub!


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