Pan­ic in a Suitcase

Yele­na Akhtiorskaya
  • Review
By – July 17, 2014

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. 

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Final­ist Yele­na Akhtiorskaya

Relat­ed Content:

  • The Ori­gin of Russ­ian for Lovers by Mari­na Blitshteyn 
  • Amer­i­can Immi­grant Tales read­ing list
  • Russian/​Soviet Jew­ry read­ing list

  • Inter­view

    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.

    Discussion Questions