The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
Stalina Folskaya, a 58-year-old Russian émigré to the US in 1991, is the sort of sweet, accepting soul who tells a beleaguered nursing student she smells like peaches, just to brighten her day. Named Stalina as a joke or a talisman (after all, they couldn’t possibly send a Jew named for Stalin to Siberia), she loves her name rather than shuns it – people’s reaction to it can tell her what they expect of the world.
But Stalin died, the Soviet Union died, and Stalina has trans- planted herself to a dying suburb of Hartford, CT, where a friendly cabby tells Stalina, upon hearing that her mother too has died in far off St. Petersburg, “I’m sorry. It’s like that, people and things go away, they end, leave us to ourselves.”
Left to herself in America, Stalina expresses a relentless immigrant optimism and creativity, opening her to all sorts of interesting people and experiences at the by-the-hour motel where she works. And her dif- ficult past slowly unfolds before us through her poignant, first-person memories. Yet she has not an ounce of resentment or hatred about the past, and the world she sees – full of kind words and considerate obser- vations, one all about the pursuit of happiness – is one we want to inhabit and accept as fully as she does.
(A curious aside: Rubin sprinkles the novel with numerous incidents of accidents involving fingers. Missing digits arise repeatedly and one cannot help wondering if this is some oblique reference to Stalin himself, who had a deformed hand.)
While filled with nostalgia for the past, Stalina has no interest in going back. Instead, she revels in the differences between the world of her past and the one of her future: “Emotions for Russians are like test tubes of boiling sulfurs. Everything is potentially a drama. I noticed that holidays here always coincide with sales in stores. In Russia we have parades...”; “Compared to our glorious Russian metro, the New York subway was like a creature suffering from a bad case of gastric distress coupled with rheumatoid arthritis...”
But her past will not leave her. In fact, it arrives with a flourish and changes her life in ways even she could not have expected.
A marvelous, captivating debut novel.
Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2011