Though the book leans on autobiography...it has been transformed into the kind of fiction that is richer than real life. Whatever personal details she has marshaled have been charged with consistently imaginative language and great verve ... The book wears its deeper insights about belonging lightly. We’re told that Esther’s 'allegiance was foremost to humor,' and the same could be said of Ms. Akhtiorskaya. Comparisons to Gary Shteyngart are inevitable, but Ms. Akhtiorskaya is less antic, her satirical vision of domestic life gentle at its core ... Panic in a Suitcase is composed of leisurely episodes, but Ms. Akhtiorskaya’s prose keeps the pace moving as quickly as any suspenseful plot could. On every page, she writes about people and things with close attention.
Her first novel, Panic in a Suitcase, is equal parts borscht stew and Borscht Belt — an immigration comedy that can’t tell whether it’s leaving or coming to America ... Her prose retains a Slavic accent and sense of humor pickled in Eastern European endurance ... Written as a comic corrective to those dynamic rags-to-riches tales, Panic in a Suitcase is skimpy with plot ... In place of some carefully developing story, Akhtiorskaya delivers a series of scenes and irresistibly grotesque character studies ... One wonders if Akhtiorskaya hasn’t descended from some unacknowledged Russian branch of Kingsley Amis’s family ... Akhtiorskaya’s genius is her ability to throw off observations that sound — if they weren’t so witty — like lines from a folktale.
There are certain novelists whose powers of observation are so acute, you barely notice that their characters' inner lives are illuminated mostly through their actions in relation to others and the world. You only occasionally glimpse a character's internal thought process—everything is surfaces and relationships ... Nothing goes unnoticed in the world of her novel, and nothing is sacred ... The novel's plot is fairly thin, but Akhtiorskaya's spectacular voice and uncanny ability to spot the absurdity in everything compensate for this ... Akhtiorskaya renders Pasha, particularly how he moves through the world, in exquisite detail ... The story skates over the surface of the characters' lives, often choosing the pleasures of bleak, slightly exaggerated humor over emotional depth, but the author hits homeruns on every page of the novel with her clever insights about family dynamics and immigrants.
What makes Panic in a Suitcase so memorable, then, is the way that it avoids the clichéd routes any of these elements could have prompted. Instead, this is a novel of family that remains true to its sometimes stubborn, sometimes endearing, and sometimes unknowable characters ... Akhtiorskaya accomplishes this transition out of the novel’s first half and into the second via two seemingly disparate scenes; as the connection between the two is made, a sense of what has transpired is gradually revealed: exposition through inference ... For all of the glorious eccentricities of her characters, the enduring message of this book is both deeply universal and faithful to the idiosyncrasies on display.
...so much of the fun of Panic in a Suitcase is its comedy of excess, her ingenuity for adding just one more thing than you expect, a zinger on top of a zinger ... The writing inflates and deflates, moving with great energy. The world itself appears sometimes larger and sometimes smaller than it actually is. Akhtiorskaya encapsulates in a single swift sentence the essence of this story: 'It was as if the city were shrinking and Pasha expanding' ... Akhtiorskaya lets us see how home is less defined—larger—than the Nasmertovs and we might have thought. Exile and the diaspora are not what they used to be.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s debut novel has immense charm, is enormously funny, and shows readers worlds we had no idea we were so curious about ... Panic in a Suitcase is not a strongly plot-driven book, though it is rich in narrative. The writing is dazzling, with sentences like fireworks rocketing off. But to enjoy the humor and warmth of this study of family and culture requires a rhythmic shift in readers’ usual approach to novel-reading ... The shift in question involves letting Akhtiorskaya’s tale emerge on its own terms, an adjustment that can take a while ... A flurry of marvelous, often very funny descriptions of people and places — sprinkled with dialogue and resulting in forward plot movement — propels us along ... As its vibrant characters accrue, in layers, over the pages, the book’s glimpses into family dynamics are amusing, but also deeply poignant — it’s a warm story, affectionate toward its characters, as well as a satirical romp.
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.
Her energetic prose is too controlled to be called manic, but it’s got Red Bull-strength hyper-caffeinated intensity ... We learn a lot about this scrappy, clamorous family in the novel’s first few pages, as overstuffed as its members’ perpetually bursting, haphazardly packed suitcases ... This is a book you read for its vivid characters and language more than plot, and it’s hard to resist quoting from it ... Although Akhtiorskaya has a predilection for contractions that seems at odds with the sophistication of her prose, that’s a small quibble about images that expand on contact, like Lycra jeans ... Reading Akhtiorskaya’s tale of two cities is a high-impact verbal workout that may leave you breathless.
Akhtiorskaya’s characters exist permanently in the liminal phase of a life transition, and find themselves in an intermediate space between cultural practices, laws, conventions; they are stuck in the act of not-yet-arriving ... Akhtiorskaya uses no quotation marks and often forgoes speech tags that would name which member of the Nasmertov clan is saying each line. The result is the cultivation of a familial voice that belongs to them all, unifies them ... As Akhtiorskaya leads her readers into the unknown, she grounds them with precise physical description. She is an expert noticer ... The combination of dislocation and precision is, perhaps, the best among the many gifts this book bestows. The effect is the engaging and suspenseful revealing of a world as one author sees it.
...there barely is a plot in Panic in a Suitcase. That's not a criticism: what we get instead of a sweeping story are a multitude of exuberant set pieces about modern émigré life, animated by Akhtiorskaya's insider knowledge and her offbeat way with words ... Panic in a Suitcase updates the classic coming-to-America tale, making it more open-ended. Indeed, Akhtiorskaya's immigrants find it comically difficult to commit to a fresh start, given that so much old baggage keeps turning up on their doorstep.
Panic in a Suitcase is fresh. It is a grotesque, a Hieronymus Bosch-like painting of the immigrant experience. Like Bosch's work, it is strange and surreal and even off-putting. Like Bosch's work, it also is memorable ... Everything in the novel is described from this unusual and unappealing point of view, lending familiar experiences and places a sense of unfamiliarity ... The brilliance of all of this, of course, is to give readers a chance to experience familiar things anew, becoming immigrants in their own now-exotic land ... The other weakness is, unfortunately, Pasha. We are told he is a genius, the most poetic and eventually famous person in all of Odessa. But the Pasha we meet and follow through the book is entirely uninteresting, limp and mostly mute ... A valuable addition to the novels capturing the Eastern European immigrant experience in America.
Akhtiorskaya’s set-piece descriptions of his monthlong stay—a family beach outing; a birthday weekend in a cramped lake cabin; a literary soiree—are drawn with sharp humor, telling character sketches and sensory flamboyance ... As Akhtiorskaya showed America through Pasha’s eyes, she now offers Frida’s vision of Crimea as chaotic, decrepit, yet enticingly surreal ... Akhtiorskaya’s sideways humor allows rays of genuine emotion to filter through the social and domestic satire.
Akhtiorskaya’s take on how family members manipulate and fail each other is spot-on, with Pasha and Frida both disappointing their family in different ways ... The prose is finely crafted, but this is not a tale of relatable people. Instead, Akhtiorskaya excels at humorous, slightly overstated character sketches, making each person uniquely absurd.