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Memoirs of a Muse: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 4, 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [Signature]Reviewed by Caryn JamesWhat 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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From Booklist

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 Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (April 4, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037542296X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375422966
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #801,545 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Len Fromzel on April 25, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Lara Varnyar brings here European and Russian traditions of Great Art of Literature. This book is deep and touching. It is charming, witty and encourages you to think. You'll find the reflection of your own self in Lara's characters and you'll sense the connection between the author and her subject...

This book is a test of reader's taste. If you are looking for an easy page-turner packed with Hollywood-style plots, you may be disappointed, but intellectual and demanding person will undoubtly enjoy it.
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Format: Hardcover
I picked up an advanced copy of this novel and finished it in a few hours. The story of a Russian immigrant searching for a purpose and direction for her life touched me deeply. References to dead Russian writers and their muses pulled past and present together. I deeply identified with the heroine's struggle to belong in a new culture. I highly recommend this book!
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Memoirs of a Muse is a kindhearted and bittersweet coming-of-age tale of a young Russian girl who suffers from a type of cultural and sexual dissonance. When we first meet her, Tanya Rumer is growing up in Soviet Russia, and as the great Empire comes apart, Tanya spends most of her youth tending to her feeble grandmother whilst her mother works to support them all.

Tanya is an ordinary girl, an underachiever at school; she lacks the obvious conventional talents. Her initial disparateness, however, is tempered by a fierce imagination. As a girl, she's drawn to her grandmother's tales about her family's connection to the famous author Dostoevsky, and in her eyes he appears as a bright and sinister character, almost a fairy-tale villain.

Tanya eventually forms a crush on an older teacher and hopes he will seduce her on a school camping trip. She begins to fantasize that he is like the dead old writers whose works she studies in class, Gogol, Chekhov - and of course Dostoevsky, the "graying hair, prominent foreheads, the knowing eyes," and she begins to see herself as type a muse, "a companion to older artistic, literary men." She needs a Prince who would save her from being a "potato-peeling Cinderella" and turn her "into a Princess/bad girl."

Tanya's fantasies prove to be somewhat prophetic, for she is granted an escape from Russia in the shape of a white envelope from the US Immigration. Now transplanted to New York, her life is suddenly distorted, leaving her facing an enigmatic future. Her world is turned upside down, as this very adventurous Russian is set wandering through a city of strangers with only her eccentric family for help.
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Format: Hardcover
In "Memoirs of a Muse," Vapnyar challenges us to step outside ourselves and see the American Dream through the eyes of Tanya, a bookish Russian Jew. Her dream is steeped in her peculiar background idealizing, and even fantasizing about, the classic Russian writers of the 19th Century, most notably Dostoevsky. One of the book's pleasures is Vapnyar's recreation of that time and her ability to get into the skin of Dostoevsky and his muse Polina Suslova. She deftly conveys the competing feelings in each character: Polina idolizes the great writer while she is disgusted by him; Dostoevsky treats Polina like a groupie but realizes her positive influence on his writing. Tanya follows in her footsteps a century later, eschewing the more materialistic inclinations of her relatives to seek greatness in becoming the muse to a great man. Her lack of familiarity with her new language and culture seal her fate. The book reads like a tragicomedy. In Tanya's story we see reflections of how our ideals of happiness are often based on illusions, and life's penchant for slapping us back to reality.
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Maybe being a muse is a Russian thing (the author is Russian), but this is an insightful, sympathetic look at the limitations for a female dreaming of and dedicating herself to being solely the inspiration for the work of a male artist. Tanya, a young girl growing up in Russia discovers that the great Fyodor Dostoevsky was obsessed and guided by his mistress, the beautiful Polina, who left behind a diary that Tanya devours. After studying history in college, she emigrates to NYC at the invitation of her uncle, but still has the misguided notion that she needs to find an artist to whom she can devote herself.

Barely reading English and working as an assistant to a dentist, Tanya wanders into a NYC bookstore for a reading by the marginally successful novelist Mark Schneider. Tanya’s interest in Mark is too intense to be ignored; it is not long before she has moved in with him. Here she begins a diary, “Memoirs of a Muse.”

Almost needless to say, the surprises in her new calling as a muse are many. First, Tanya has never lived with a man, let alone an uncertain artist. She discovers that though Mark is a writer, he writes little. But he is particular; his daily routine is mapped out and Tanya is expected to fully support all of those specifics. She is very uncomfortable in the phony literary circle in which Mark feels he has to circulate. And, disappointingly, Mark is indifferent to her romantic needs. Tanya, increasingly, finds herself to be like the selfless, denigrated wife of Dostoevsky, instead of a muse.

The story unfolds over a year or so. The author well shows Tanya’s up and down emotions: hopeful one day and despairing the next. A turning point is when Tanya finally discovers that, as an artist, Mark is not a Dostoevsky.
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