In the legacy of Tolstoy’s famous prelude, the Nasmertov family is unhappy in its own way. Leaving Odessa for the Soviet immigrant community of Brighton Beach, three generations orbit around the infrequent visits of Pasha, Esther and Robert’s only son, a poet with a poet’s constitution, from their city of origin. He wanders their transplant community, indulging in his glorified status in expatriate artist circles and resisting his parents’ admonishments to join them in the New World, where they’ve settled into “a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original, they’d gone through so many hurdles to escape,” he observes.
While Pasha enjoys his transitory experience of American life, his sister Marina endures its realities, cleaning the homes of charitable Orthodox Jews while refusing to succumb to the “religion of comfort” of American women, to which all of her fellow immigrant friends have long since fallen. Her husband, Levik, struggles with a job in computer programming for which he is tortuously underqualified, and her daughter Frida teeters on the brink of adolescence without the attention she feels her budding development deserves.
The family and its dynamic are upended with the discovery of a lump in its matriarch’s breast, propelling Marina into nursing school — that purgatory of respectability in a family of former doctors. As Esther’s health deteriorates under chemotherapy, Pasha’s return to the United States is as welcome as it is resisted, and with her death his visits end altogether.
The Nasmertov narrative lies fallow following Esther’s decease until announcement of a cousin’s wedding in Odessa spurs Frida, now languishing in a summer internship between terms of medical school, to visit her family’s abandoned home. Her uncle Pasha, now the established poet in the Russian-speaking world, lives placidly with a young souvenir from his excursions in Brooklyn, having long surrendered his marriage and his parents’ dacha to his ex-wife. Through the concurrent disappointments of her stay at her uncle’s, Frida continues her search for a reason to forswear her medical training, while Pasha is forced to contemplate the waning trajectory of his literary renown and the unswerving alienation that riddles his life wherever he is.
Debut author Yelena Akhtiorskaya delivers her first book with the nuance and craft of a seasoned novelist. There is a poise to Panic in a Suitcase that underlies the book’s most humorous and most honest moments, in which a cast of altogether human characters interact with one another under the resentment, frustration, and poorly expressed love of family. Exposing the stresses of separation and the banality of long-awaited reunions, Panic in a Suitcase is a deft immigrant narrative exploring the individual experience of those who leave, those who stay, and those who attempt to return.
Read Nat Bernstein’s interview with Yelena Akhtiorskaya here.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.