Panic in a Suitcase

Panic in a Suitcase

A Novel

Additional Formats
  • Hardcover
  • ISBN 9781594632143
  • 320 Pages
  • Riverhead
  • Adult


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.


“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

“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

“A virtuosic debut [and] a wry look at immigrant life in the global age” —Vogue

“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
“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

“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.”
—Aleksandar Hemon

“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