Panic in a Suitcase
By Yelena Akhtiorskaya
(Riverhead Books, Hardcover, 9781594632143, 320pp.)
Publication Date: July 31, 2014
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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.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya was born in Odessa in 1985 and raised in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a Posen Fellowship in Fiction, and her writing has appeared in n+1, The New Republic, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.
Ari Shapiro talks with first-time novelist Yelena Akhtiorskaya about her book, Panic in a Suitcase. More at NPR.org
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Yelena Akhtiorskaya's debut novel is about a family that emigrates from Odessa to the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y. It's a funny tale full of insider knowledge and offbeat words. More at NPR.org
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Praise for Panic in a Suitcase:
Named a Best or Notable Book of 2014 by the New York Times, Washington Post , Salon, NPR, Electric Literature, Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Flavorwire and a "Book You Need to Read in 2015" by Refinery 29
"Impressive ... beautifully drawn ... Akhtiorskaya layers the novel with equal parts humor and anxiety and expertly highlights the unease of having one foot in and one foot out of the old country. ... The book succeeds, phenomenally, at presenting the immigrant duality. ... The relationships Akhtiorskaya mines are fascinating and tender, her writing crisp and gorgeous in its ability to capture gnawing attempts to piece together an immigrant identity. Panic in a Suitcase is a rewarding biography of displacement, where those left behind are often as disconnected as those who flee for an elusive better life elsewhere." —The New York Times Book Review
“This 28-year-old writer from Odessa subordinates the violence of nations for a moment and offers the balm of laughter… Equal parts borscht stew and Borscht belt … this is the great immigrant story drained of its inspirational hype. … One wonders if Akhtiorskaya hasn’t descended from some unacknowledged Russian branch of Kingsley Amis’s family…. Genius.”—The Washington Post
“A virtuosic debut [and] a wry look at immigrant life in the global age” —Vogue
“A breath of fresh air… [Akhtiorskaya is] a deeply perceptive writer, and her observations about the family's experience as immigrants to America are sharp and sometimes heartbreaking… [and] leavened by [her] dry, brilliant sense of humor…Panic in a Suitcase isn't just remarkable as a literary debut, but also as a uniquely American work of fiction... It's a testament to Akhtiorskaya's wit, generosity, and immense talent as a young American author.” —NPR
“[A] spirited first novel…Akhtiorskaya approaches the fundamental experience of exile with tenderness and satiric wit” —The San Francisco Chronicle
"This funny, smart novel details the lives of Ukrainian émigrés who have moved to Brighton Beach. The best way to read it? On location, of course" —Refinery 29, "Books You Need to Read in 2015"
“As Russian immigrant fiction evolves from novelty niche to full-on genre, every new effort faces a higher bar for originality. Akhtiorskaya vaults that bar with ease. Her characters…inhabit a post-Soviet universe in which you actually can go home again. Or possibly never even leave… [and] her vibrant blend of wordplay, wistfulness, and poignantly comic characters immediately conjures Nabokov’s academic farce, Pnin.” —Vulture
“Brilliant and often funny… the kind of fiction that is richer than real life…charged with consistently imaginative language and great verve… Ms. Akhtiorskaya’s prose keeps the pace moving as quickly as any suspenseful plot could…[a] sparkling debut.” —The New York Times
“A riotous, satirical take on the aspirational escape-to-a-better-life saga… Reading Akhtiorskaya's tale of two cities is a high-impact verbal workout that may leave you breathless.”—Los Angeles Times
"In an engrossing, sensitive, and funny narrative, Akhtiorskaya captures the transcendent absurdities of intra-family communication and explores the way one family’s decisions can ‘cast a shadow that could be interpreted as fate.’”
— The New Yorker
"Capturing the irritations and intricacies of family life with Nabokovian humor and wit … [Akhtiorskaya] gets at capital-T Truth without a hint of sentimentality, achieving the intangible literary goal of showing our oft-banal world in a familiar yet astonishing light.”—Elle
“Panic in a Suitcase is a valuable addition to the novels capturing the Eastern European immigrant experience in America. Akhtiorskaya has found a bit of grotesque fun in this age-old story, a significant achievement.” —Chicago Tribune
"Very nearly Nabokovian." —New York Magazine
“[Akhtiorskaya’s] voice is utterly original and unique, but also confident enough that the reader happily follows her wherever her kaleidoscopic vocabulary and unpredictable turns of phrase may lead. Lines that demand to be copied into notebooks abound… It is one of the most successful, entertaining, uniquely-written pieces of fiction I have ever read…Like everyone else who rightly decides to pick up this book, I will await Akhtiorskaya’s next novel with rabid anticipation.” —Artvoice
“Panic in a Suitcase makes something unexpectedly refreshing out of the overcooked tropes of the immigrant household struggling in its new environs… Akhtiorskaya’s work, with its attentiveness to the small but crucial moment, its meandering from perspective to perspective to perspective, put me in mind of Virginia Woolf…reading her debut novel, one can easily believe that she may well write a true masterpiece and soon.” —The Jewish Daily Forward
“Akhtiorskaya has a gift for vivid, unexpected detail and evocative metaphor… Peopled with smartly drawn, humorously caricatured characters and packed with clever, evocative description, Panic in a Suitcase is a charming, chaotic read.”—The Huffington Post
“For all of the glorious eccentricities of [Akhtiorskaya’s] characters, the enduring message of this book is both deeply universal and faithful to the idiosyncrasies on display…[Panic in a Suitcase has] humor and catharsis in abundance” —Christian Science Monitor
“An impressive tragicomedy about culture shock, integration and the tangle of family bonds…Akhtiorskaya’s many dizzying locutions and descriptions…are redolent of early Nabokov… her rich language and ideas sublimate the mundane — 'the katastrofa that is everyday life' — into something very special indeed.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“[Akhtiorskaya] drags the churning hopes, terrors, delusions, and disillusions of emigration in late-capitalist America to the surface… crystallizing the experience of three generations, two countries, and an overlooked immigrant community in 300 pages of muscular, unpredictable prose”—The Millions
“Sharply observed and very funny… exuberant set pieces about modern émigré life [are] animated by Akhtiorskaya's insider knowledge and her offbeat way with words…ingenious” —NPR
“Akhtiorskaya writes fearlessly, like a dancer who’s never been injured pushing every move to the max… reading this giddily inventive prose is like touring a city where you’ve lived all your life and discovering entire districts you didn’t know existed… A thrilling debut by a writer with a generous soul.” —San Diego Jewish World
“Akhtiorskaya [has a] spectacular voice and uncanny ability to spot the absurdity in everything…[the] linguistic pleasures are … bold and memorable…the author hits homeruns on every page of the novel with her clever insights about family dynamics and immigrants….[An] immensely gifted novelist with a sharp eye for the ridiculous and a bright literary future.” —Pop Matters
“[Panic in a Suitcase]’s prose truly sets it apart, bursting with such striking imagery, syntactic complexity, and poeticism that it would do its own protagonist proud.” —Nylon
“Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York’s best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest.” —The Millions
“Lyrical, funny… deftly crafted… Ms. Akhtiorskaya, who is under 30, writes like an old soul… Panic in a Suitcase effectively paints the picture of family that is anything but smooth, and… Akhtiorskaya’s unique linguistic gifts reflect and even illuminate her rough-textured worlds.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“An amusingly off-kilter glimpse of a family lost in transition, with jokes aplenty tinged with an authentic Russian Borscht Belt attitude.” —The Jewish Week
"A hilarious debut...Akhtiorskaya excels at humorous, slightly overstated character sketches, making each person uniquely absurd.”
“Marvelous…With beautiful prose that often feels like poetry, Akhtiorskaya portrays America from an outsider’s perspective while revealing the collective truths about families no matter where they live…A touching and darkly funny first novel that is sure to be adored by readers everywhere. Very highly recommended.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“Given current events, Akhtiorskaya’s debut—concerning an immigrant family’s ambivalent ties to America and those who choose to stay behind in Ukraine—could not be more timely… [her] set-piece descriptions are drawn with sharp humor… and sensory flamboyance [that] allows rays of genuine emotion to filter through the social and domestic satire.” –Kirkus [starred review]
“A mercilessly funny debut novel about a Russian family washing up, and out, in America. Yelena Akhtiorskaya seems helplessly bound to deliver the truth, in perfect prose, about our families, wherever they are from. She is a tremendously good new writer.”
—Ben Marcus, author of Leaving the Sea and The Flame Alphabet
“This is not only a wise, funny novel; it feels like the beginning of a thrilling career. Yelena Akhtiorskaya's sentences plunge the reader headlong into the energy, anxiety, frailty, and love of the Nasmertov family of Brooklyn and Odessa. She finds poetry in clamor and disorder, and she sees her characters from every angle, with a rare mix of clarity and compassion.”
– Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding
“Sentence after sentence, Panic in a Suitcase is infused with humor and poetry, as Akhtiorskaya's characters emerge beautiful and hilarious and splendorous in all their failings. Her language and intelligence achieve what only great literature can do: transform what you know and love into something strange and new, making the world realign itself according to the writer's sensibility. I'd read a take-out menu written by Yelena Akthiorskaya, but Panic in a Suitcase is a humbling, astonishing debut. Get to it as soon as you can.”
“I think Yelena Akhtiorskaya is a genius. What she manages to do, linguistically and emotionally, in the span of a single sentence, is astonishing.”
—Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men
“Yelena Akhtiorskaya creates a beautifully precise and vibrant world populated by touching, funny, unforgettable characters. A true joy to read.”
—Lara Vapnyar, author of Memoirs of a Muse