If I did not admire Sana Krasikov so much I would be extremely jealous of her. She has an enviable early career, with her first print short story published in The New Yorker, her second in The Atlantic Monthly. With an O. Henry Award and a Fulbright Scholarship behind her, she was named one of the National Book Foundation's Top 5 Under 35 in 2008. It is no wonder, then, that her first volume of short stories, One More Year, was almost a guaranteed success.
I approached the collection cautiously, wondering if the first few successes were lucky flukes and the hype precipitate rather than deserved. I read the stories twice, first absorbing the plot, then the tone, trying to put my finger on the element that ensured One More Year such success. By the end of the second round I had a pretty good idea.
Krasikov was born in the Ukraine and grew up in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, moving to the United States at age nine. Though one could say hers are stories of immigrants, in the most significant sense they are human stories, superficially united by the common nationality of the characters, but actually driven by common sensibilities of love lost, gained, and sustained through familiar and unfamiliar circumstances. They are stories of emotions any one of us will experience even if we've never left our hometown.
All of Krasikov's stories explore the same motifs: the desire to connect with others, the yearning for a place and identity, the pain of loneliness. Three of the eight stories chronicle the end of a marriage, yet far from a belaboring a theme, she treats it from three completely different angles.
"The Repatriates" is perhaps the most complex and dramatic sample though it follows a basic plot – the last days of a thirty year marriage – "…a story fashioned out of commonplace warnings." The one-sided heartache of the adoring and simple Lera is profound in its utter simplicity. Leaving New York to follow her husband back to Georgia she finds herself a double expatriate as estranged at home as she was abroad. Her husband's every moment is focused on establishing a Georgian housing financing organization. With remarkable foresight for a story written at the height of worldwide economic optimism, Krasikov points out the looming political and economic pitfalls of such an organization, a prophecy fulfilled in the collapse of America's own housing industry that would take place six months after the story is published. Lera's story is comparatively more crisis-driven than many in the collection though no less understandable ending in divorce, heartbreak, a career change, and a move around the world.
The stolid story "Companion" is rigorous in its attention to circumstantial detail, leaving emotion to the reader's extrapolation. Downplaying a history teeming with an affair, divorce, and immigration, middle-aged Ilona matter-of-factly lives as a caregiver and companion to an elderly gentleman. He provides room and board in exchange for letting him take her to dinner every week and making sure he takes his medicine. When Ilona goes to a party or on a date Earl calls to ask when she'll be home and she pacifies him by pointing out that she left dinner in the fridge for him. Neither struggling against, nor particularly keen on perpetuating this delicate arrangement Ilona seems to believe that her dreams have come and gone, and now her focus rests on enjoying whatever befalls her. The climax of this story is the decision to garnish an omelet.
Unusual for a writer coming out of a Soviet country, Krasikov cries no fie on the characters' countries of origin; she does not reproach them for whatever disadvantages their natives might encounter or bring with them into their American lives. Neither does she blame American social stratification, fast food, or economics for the challenges entailed in building a life here. She makes no moral or political judgments about Georgia or New York City; neither is better or worse, they just happen to be where her characters live.
I'll confess my first read through her stories left me unimpressed. Granted, my expectations were unrealistically high but really, I didn't get them. I was expecting a crusade for or against America or Eastern Europe. I was expecting tragic misfortune that would bring me to tears or high flying messages of hope and love. It took a second pass to realize that Sana Krasikov is nothing if not subtle. Her verbs are not especially vivid; her adjectives are sparse. Her language is everyday. And with this simplicity she writes some of the most compelling stories I have read in a long while. Her purpose in One More Year, if there is one other than acting as a mirror, will not be found in blame assignation or unrealistic dramatization. Her stories are not windows into the eccentric neighbor's living room, they are descriptions of our own.