How to Get into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"The fires were closer now. No longer in Simi Valley or the outskirts of the city. I could see rows of red and orange, fire lines down the hills in Burbank and moving closer to us, along the ridges of the mountains."
The Los Angeles county wildfires provide an unexpectedly fitting backdrop for a story of Anya, a 25-year-old woman who emigrated from Poland and settled in California having gone through refugee camps first in Austria then in Texas. Anya is struggling to find her place in Los Angeles: "a desperately sad study of loneliness and alienation" - this worn-out cliché best characterizes Karolina Waclawiak's How to get into the Twin Palms (2012).
Anya is currently unemployed and not particularly eager to look for job: she earns some money reading numbers for elderly ladies' bingo meetings and collects unemployment checks. She lives in an immigrant neighborhood near Fairfax predominantly occupied by Russians and Ukrainians. Twin Palms is a Russian night club next door from her rent-controlled apartment building. The only people with whom Anya has a semblance of human contact are a few of her neighbors and an 83-year-old woman from the bingo club.
Unable to find her place in the alien world Anya tries to reinvent herself and establish some sort of niche where she could exist. She desperately looks for human connection and clings to a somewhat shady Russian man, Lev, who is happy to sleep with her whenever it is convenient for him. Eventually Anya's Big Dream becomes reality: Lev takes her to the Twin Palms.
The real climax of the novel occurs a bit later and takes place in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. The dramatic, unexpected, and poignant scenes will linger in the reader's mind for a long time. On the backdrop of Simi Valley Fires, in the line of sight of the HOLLYWOOD sign Anya begins the final phase of reinventing herself and making her mark on the imperfect world.
The climactic scenes remind me of The Day of the Locust finale and if anything they are even more powerful. While Ms. Waclawiak makes a convincing point that a person cannot exist alone, the heavy-handed metaphor of the plot bothers me: trying to get into the Twin Palms signifies an attempt to assimilate with the alien society and the fierce fires that cleanse the desert provide a metaphor for rebirth. The molting, skin-changing metaphor is also too obvious. In addition I find it hard to be impressed with a choppy, first-person narration, a sort of staccato recitation of short affirmative sentences beginning with "I".
The immigrant's curse is portrayed convincingly. Being a Polish immigrant - although in completely different circumstances, ones of relative luxury - I can recognize in Anya parts of people of my ethnicity whom I know. I can recognize the guilt and the shame of Polishness. I understand the desperate struggle to escape the bigos and the pierogi. And I also recognize the fear of escaping the Polishness too far. Anya rejects the culture which she inherited but attempts to adopt one that is different but not different enough.
Three and a quarter stars.
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