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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars shteyngart is a natural comedian
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...
Published on August 4, 2002

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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Some clever wordplay, but in need of an editor
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...
Published on March 12, 2005 by lunacharskii


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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Some clever wordplay, but in need of an editor, March 12, 2005
By 
lunacharskii (Ann Arbor, MI United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Russian Debutante's Handbook (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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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars shteyngart is a natural comedian, August 4, 2002
By A Customer
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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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Many in-jokes, picaresque Mafia Portnoy's Complaint..., January 1, 2005
By 
Gwen A Orel (Millburn, New Jersey United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Russian Debutante's Handbook (Paperback)
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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34 of 42 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Utterly original and infused with comic lunacy, December 24, 2002
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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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shteyngart knows the location of America's cultural pulse, January 26, 2003
By 
Christina (Columbus, OH USA) - See all my reviews
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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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the funniest book of the year, July 20, 2002
By A Customer
Even in a movie, surrounded by enthusiastic laughers, I tend to think, "Hmm. That was amusing." But Gary Shteyngart's book had me laughing out loud hysterically -- inlcuding once on a plane to the dismay of neighboring passengers. Shteyngart re-invents the English language and creates a cast of uniquely weird and hilarious characters, which he mercilessly satirizes while somehow managing to portray them tenderly, with empathy. The [love] scenes between his hero Vladimir and his American girlfriends are painfully sad and comic at once and the hero's parents both crack you up and break your heart. Russian Debutante is an amazing and brilliant creation. Watch this guy's career. He's going to be one of the top writers of his generation.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars language mostly overcomes the flaws, September 7, 2003
This review is from: The Russian Debutante's Handbook (Paperback)
Vladimir Girshkin, a Russian Jewish immigrant careens for various complex reasons (much having to do with attempts to make money) between the high-class homes of New York City, the tight confines of his bureaucratic office in the Dept. of Immigration, a Miami hotel room shared with a drug dealer (and that�s his good side), and a penthouse suite inhabited by another immigrant and a fan. And that�s even before he heads to �Prava�, where he shifts from mob headquarters in �Prava� to various literary cafes and �in� clubs as he becomes in series or simultaneously a pyramid schemer, a mob lieutenant, an motivational speaker, a lover, and a poet. As one might expect, the book is a bit of a mix.
The language, especially in the beginning, is inspired and comic with strange twists and turns of simile and idiom. The characters as well are inspired, especially the side characters such as the Fan Man and the Drug Dealer, who are painted in such broad funny strokes that they threaten to overshadow the more passive Girshkin. It is this passivity, and a desire to break out of it, that leads the main character into all the above mentioned places, and if the author strains a bit here and there to get him there, it�s mostly well worth the trip.
The pace is uneven�it mostly sustains itself throughout the book but there is a too-long section set in New York that bogs down the first half a bit, though things perk up wonderfully upon his arrival in Prava, and the ending spirals a bit out of the author�s control feeling at times too rushed and at other times too slow, while the epilogue is just anti-climatic. As mentioned, the characters are broadly drawn, more cartoons than attempts at realistic characters, and if you don�t like that sort of thing, you won�t like this book. Plot events too are beyond the believable at times, which fits the whole tone and tenor of the book but again, if you�re the sort of person that will throw a book down yelling �but nobody would do that!�, then best to choose another novel. Mostly, though, it�s the language that makes this book worth a read. I found myself laughing out loud sometimes and chuckling a lot, less at the situations than the language and the somewhat twisted insights (some purposeful some not) into American society made by the main character. It�s a flawed book, certainly, and disappoints somewhat at the close, but overall a worthy, run read.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clever, witty, and right on, September 24, 2002
By A Customer
I too was among the thousands who in the late 70's/early 80's immigrated as kids and preteens to the US from various republics of the then-Soviet Union. So in reading Shteyngart's debut, so much struck close to home - from the suburban-bound parents, to the bizarre home remedies ("cupping," mustard compresses), to Soviet kindergartens, to the delicious Russian candy (now faithfully replicated in Brooklyn and adored by my daughters and American friends). So, yes, many of us might have had the content to write this book about the crazy-yet-ordinary adventures of the lovable Vladimir Girshkin, but definitely not the gorgeous command of the language (that's where the Nabokov comparison is right on) and the clever, satirical eye. And, yes, there are some flaws with this first novel, but lack of wit and talent are certainly not among them. I can't wait to see what my zemlyak (fellow countryman) will produce next.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ingenious and political, August 3, 2002
By A Customer
I couldn't stop laughing and loving each crazy ingenious sentence. Shteyngart writes like no one else writes. I like especially how he show us the arrogance of both Russian and Americans in his novel and how this is really a novel for the 21 century when only one power is left in the world. Hero Vladimir Girshkin can not find a home for himself and this creates many funny situations in America and Europe both. The scenes in Prava/Prague are the funniest as Vladimir tries to teach russian gangsters how to be american. A brilliant book which is perfect for anyone who likes to laugh and think.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful protagonist, weak plot, January 6, 2004
By A Customer
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This review is from: The Russian Debutante's Handbook (Paperback)
This book is a good read, if not for anything else, Vladimir's insight and Shteyngart's lyrical and hillarious language.

But the lack of action and compelling characters in Prague is the undoing of an otherwise great work. To be certain, the first half is much better than the second. The language is initially grounded - the image of Vladimir in New York insinuating his way into high society while maintaining a bohemian lifestyle resonated more for me than the platitudes of his social circle in Prague. More importantly, Shteyngard compromises the plot by introducing fantastic elements (blowing up the foot) that are better suited to outright farce.
That said, I really enjoyed reading this book, could barely put it down and finished it in a week, It's flawed, but I'm looking forward to the next installment.
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The Russian Debutante's Handbook
The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart (Paperback - April 29, 2003)
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