From Publishers Weekly
[Signature]Reviewed by Caryn James
What kind of person writes a thesis about makeup in 19th-century Russia? Tatiana Rumer, a would-be historian from the collapsing Soviet Union, wants to know where people from the past dumped their garbage, "what men used for shaving and what women used for birth control." Her thesis adviser in New York, where Tanya moves after college, sneers. But Tanya's eye for details—especially the cosmetic details that give life a rosier glow—makes her the ideal narrator for Lara Vapnyar's witty, engaging, beautifully precise first novel. During her Soviet childhood, Tanya is a girl who escapes her unpopularity by dreaming that she will become the muse of a great writer. Her favorite is Dostoyevski, and she chooses as her own inspiration his mistress, Polina, who was immortalized as a character in The Brothers Karamazov
and The Idiot
. Dostoyevski's wife, Anna, to whom he dictated The Gambler
, seems a mere stenographer to Tanya; a muse "influences the great man's work," she believes, in some glorious, "magical way."Throughout the book, as she moves from her youth in the U.S.S.R. to her first years as a young woman in New York City, Tanya interweaves her own story with that of the affair between Dostoyevski and the actual Polina (Apollinaria Suslova), a story that is a mix of fact and Tanya's romantic fantasies. Only after she joins her émigré aunt and uncle in New York, almost halfway through the book, do we learn that the novel's catchy title is ironic. "Memoirs of a Muse" is the name Tanya gives to her diary about her days as an inspiration—others might say kept woman—of an American writer, Mark Schneider. The section about their affair becomes more satiric, with its sly portrait of a pretentious, not-quite successful writer in middle age and his navel-gazing Manhattan literary world. Mark's latest novel has the banal title After the Beginning
, but then English is Tanya's second language, so what doe she know?She learns fast, but Vapnyar learned faster. She writes ridiculously well in English although she only moved to New York from Moscow in 1994, when in her early 20s. Rich with details that simply glide into place, this novel more than fulfills the promise of her 2003 story collection, There Are Jews in My House
. The conclusion reads like a tacked-on epilogue. Otherwise, this is a wonderfully fresh portrait of the romantic imagination and its inevitable collision with reality. (Apr. 4)Caryn James's second novel,
What Caroline Knew, will be published in March. She is a critic-at-large for the
New York Times.
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Vapnyar hasn't lost any of the scintillating precision of her standout short-story collection, here Are Jews in My House
(2003), in her canny first novel. She even turns up the flame on her delectable wit and sexual candor. As a fatherless girl in Moscow, Tatiana becomes fascinated by the great Russian writers, especially Dostoyevsky. As an adolescent, she is told by a lecherous teacher that she will become "the muse to a great man." When she immigrates to America to pursue a graduate degree in history, she chooses to fulfill her destiny as a muse instead, readily abandoning the stifling immigrant enclave in Brighton Beach for a writer's Central Park apartment. As Vapnyar cleverly dovetails Tatiana's story with that of the woman who reluctantly served as muse to Dostoyevsky, she takes measure of the vast divide that separates men and women, bemoans the failings of feminism, offers a claws-extended parody of the self-obsessed male artist, and delivers a withering critique of the immigrant experience. Writing in an Atwoodesque mode, Vapnyar has fashioned a knowing, irreverent, and toothsome ode to the imagination, a power that all too often leads us astray. Donna SeamanCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved