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The Russian Debutante's Handbook Paperback – April 29, 2003

3.7 out of 5 stars 126 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Vladimir Girshkin, a likeable Russian immigrant, searches for love, a decent job, and a credible self-identity in Gary Shteyngart's debut novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook. With a doctor-father of questionable ethics and a manic, banker mother, Vladimir avoids his suburban parents and their desire that he pursue the almighty dollar as proof of success. Vladimir gets by as an immigration clerk, eking out a living in a cruddy New York City apartment while accumulating an array of quirky acquaintances, from a wealthy but disheveled old man (who claims his electric fan speaks to him) desperate for citizenship to Challa, a portly S/M queen. As a love interest, Challa is replaced by Francesca, a graduate student whose friends welcome Vladimir for the status he brings their bohemian clique, and whose parents encourage them to shack up (she lives at home) as visible proof she can maintain a steady relationship.

The Russian Debutante's Handbook is a quirky amalgam of dead-on American absurdities, albeit with somewhat stereotypical characters. While Vladimir flounders with how to improve his state, he becomes an expatriate in a trendy European city, becomes somewhat of a mobster himself, and generally has a good time. While many of the central characters remain elusively thin, Vladimir is a delight, and Shteyngart's wit is merciless: Russian women wear "wedding cakes of blond hair" and graduate students lounge in a bar "as if waiting for funding to appear." Reminiscent of Gogol and other Russian satirists, The Russian Debutante's Handbook is a genuine, sublime social commentary. --Michael Ferch --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Orwell once remarked that the narrator of Tropic of Cancer was so far from endeavoring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him. Shteyngart, whose sensibility is allied with Miller's, takes a passive character, Vladimir Girshkin, and makes him briefly proactivewith disastrous resultsin his smart debut novel. Vladimir is the son of immigrants who came to the U.S. via a Carter administration swap (American wheat for Russian Jews); his father, a doctor prone to dreams of suicide and complicated medical schemes, and his mother, an entrepreneur who makes fun of her son's gait, give him the inestimable gift of alienation. In true slacker fashion, Vladimir, at 25, is wasting his expensive education clerking at the Emma Lazarus Immigration Absorption Society. A client, Rybakov, bribes Vladimir to get him American citizenship, confiding that his son, the Groundhog, is a leading businessman (in prostitutes and drugs) in Pravathe Paris of the nineties in the fictional Republika Stolovaya. Vladimir fakes a citizenship ceremony for Rybakov in order to curry favor with the Groundhog. Then, because he has unwisely repelled the sexual advances of crime boss Jordi while trying to make some illicit bucks to keep his girlfriend, Francesca, in squid and sake dinners in Manhattan, Vladimir leaves abruptly for Prava. Once there, and backed by the Groundhog, Vladimir embarks on a scheme to fleece the American students who have flocked to Prava's legendary scene. Although the satire on the expatriate American community is a little too easy, Shteyngart's Vladimir remains an impressive piece of work, an amoral buffoon who energizes this remarkably mature work.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 476 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reissue edition (April 29, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573229881
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573229883
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (126 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #195,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, won the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His second novel, Absurdistan, was named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, as well as a best book of the year by Time, The Washington Post Book World, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and many other publications. He has been selected as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, and Travel + Leisure and his books have been translated into more than twenty languages. He lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Gary Steyngart is an obviously talented writer, as this debut novel proves. Let me be more precise: Shteyngart is gifted with words and imagery and phrasing, but less so when it comes to plot and pacing and characterization. Vladimir Girshkin, our erstwhile hero, is a walking contradiction -- a thoroughly unpleasant and unsympathetic character who will undoubtedly frustrate most readers by consistently acting in inconsistent and unpredictable fashion. The rest of the characters we encounter merely fumble through the proceedings as cardboard cutout-stereotypes; others (luckier ones?) simply disappear without a trace (sadly, it is the more interesting characters who vanish, leaving us with the dross).

Again, Shteyngart has a real flair for language, and there are some moments that will inspire true laughter in most readers. But at 470+ pages, this book is simply too long for its own good; Shteyngart can't sustain the hilarity, the plot wanders, the focus blurs, and at least 150 pages should have been cut. With a sloppily constructed plot riddled with holes, a host of inaccuracies that a watchful editor would have doubtless corrected (bones in chicken Kiev??), and a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion, this is an interesting, but incredibly overrated, novel. Quite simply, this is not the great masterpiece that the cover blurbs would have you believe.
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Format: Hardcover
I have had a similar upbringing as the author. I came to New York when I was young from Russia, and had a similar kind of education and I have to say the author gets the whole thing down right. Not only is he a great writer he has the kind of comic timing that only a good comedian has. The jokes come fast and furious and you just speed through the novel on the humor alone. Not everyone can get this comedy I'm sure but for those who have an open mind this is a trip worth taking (see for example the funny false naturalization ceremony for immigrants, the bonfire of Soviet clothes, etc.) This is the beginning of a great talent worth watching. The last few pages are an intersting way to finish the book because they show us just how sad the hero's story is beneath the laughter.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I read this for the section dealing with expatriates in Prague-- here called "Prava." If you spent any time there in the nineties, you'll see a lot of in-jokes and satire that may cause you to chuckle-- the Prague Post here named Prava-dence, Cafe Radost called Joy, and so on.

But in truth that section is not what the book is "about" (nor is there a lot of detail about it)-- it's a comic/dark fantasy coming-of-age that takes on America, Russia, Central Europe-- none of it terribly deeply. It's sort of a Russian Philip Roth-- Girshkin's ruminations on women and sex take up a lot of the book and they are remarkably unerotic; sex seems to be all animal smells and bodily fulids.

The story of an American/Russian boy (Like the author, the protagonist moved to America as a child) who for complicated reasons ends up in Central Europe as an entrepreneurial mafioso is episodic, wordy, intermittently funny but ultimately oddly uninvolving.

This got ecstatic reviews and awards when it came out, and there's no doubt that Shteyngart writes well, but the comparisons to Waugh are misplaced. Waugh was concise-- Shteyngart goes on, and on, and on. This book would be a lot more fun if it were a solid 150 pages shorter.

As it is, had I not been interested in the Prague satire, I think i'd have stopped reading-- this kind of blood-and-semen boy-into-man comedy is not something I usually enjoy.

Like Philip Roth, whose Portnoy's Complaint is so well written but kind of gross, I will keep an eye on Shteyngart and read him again. If you like that kind of story, you'll like this too.
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Format: Hardcover
Gary Shteyngart has written a great first novel, filled with idiosyncratic characters and their over-the-top experiences.  With the Russian Debutante's Handbook, he has established himself as a master of social critique and comic lunacy.
One of the beauties of this novel is how it skillfully juxtaposes two worlds.  The first half of the novel explores the peculiarities of New York City through the eyes of Vladimir Gershkin, an immigrant Russian Jew working as an assimilation facilitator at an immigrant absorption clinic.  The second half of the novel follows our hero to the loosely-fictitious eastern European city of Prava, bubbling with the onset of capitalism and infused with comic relief by the budding expat community.  Shteyngart, himself a Russian immigrant, ideally trained by his own experience and uniquely equipped with a gift for observation and expression, exposes the hilarious quirks of each world and pokes sharply yet playfully at their shortcomings.
Much has been said about Shteyngart's gift for language.  It is not an exaggeration to say that one could literally open this book to any page and find an utterly original turn of phrase, or a combination of words that beg you to stop and ponder.  This is a truly fresh voice in the literary world.
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Format: Hardcover
Vladimir Girshkin, aged 25, doesn't know who he really is, who he wants to be, or what he will become. He is, however, painfully aware that he's a Russian immigrant, a naturalized American citizen, and a Jew. These three qualities give Girshkin a painful inferiority complex, one which alternates between hilarious and disheartening.
Instead, Girshkin does know he needs more money than he could ever earn acclimating Russian citizens to America in order to support his new, nouveau riche lifestyle in New York City, flittering among TriBeCa's inner circles and cliques. So, he travels to Prava-the glittering and grimy capital of Eastern Europe in the early `90s-to cavort with the Russian mafiaso and pull off the pyramid scheme to end all pyramid schemes. There, he works under the shadow of communism, literally; an immense statue of Stalin's foot occupies much of Prava's main square, serving as a grim reminder of the Soviet way of life and, more specifically, 1969.
Once in Prava, Girshkin quickly establishes himself as the Hemmingway of the 30,000-plus strong expatriate community, where everyone is a Fitzgerald and parties like they'll never return home.
This novel is infused with Gary Shteyngart's perception of Americans and their culture and his reflections on what it is like to be without a country. Through Shteyngart's witty phrases and dialogue, he proves he knows his adopted country better than most native-born Americans; phrases like "And Vladimir, young and tiny but already a child of America, said, `Aren't there pills she can take?'" make the reader cringe with a chagrined acceptance.
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