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A Replacement Life: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 3, 2014

4.0 out of 5 stars 158 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Critic and short story writer Fishman’s first novel concerns the risks and the rewards of fiction, but it isn’t as postmodern as that sounds. Instead, it’s a straight-ahead story about committing fraud for all the right reasons—love, family, and Holocaust restitution. Slava Gelman, lapsed Jew from a former Soviet republic, is a blocked writer who works at Century, a venerable magazine headquartered in Manhattan. Slava’s grandfather, Yevgeny, a notorious fixer and thug with a heart of gold, is always on the take. When it turns out that Slava’s recently deceased grandmother would have been eligible for reparations from the German government, Slava decides to forge the claim, grafting the scanty details of her terrible wartime experiences onto his grandfather’s. Soon, in part because of Slava’s burning desire to write, he is forging dozens of restitution claims. Though saccharinity and righteousness taint this tale, Fishman has talent galore, and an attractive love interest, funny set-pieces, a brochure-beautiful Big Apple, and spectacular, acutely self-conscious prose are all most enjoyable. --Michael Autrey


“Bold, ambitious and wickedly smart…A REPLACEMENT LIFE is full of descriptive treasures…The only problem with this novel is that its covers are too close together. I wanted more of Slava, his bumpy love life, his venal grandfather.” (Patricia T. O'Conner, New York Times Book Review)

“[An] ingenious debut...the novel is often very funny, but its most rewarding moments come as Slava, listening to the war stories of...elderly strangers, finds himself drawing closer to the grandmother whose secrets once seemed lost to him.” (The New Yorker)

“Fishman, like his protagonist, is a born storyteller with a tremendous gift for language on all brow levels, making for a captivating and rare first novel that is tender, learned, funny and deeply soulful - frequently all at the same time.” (San Francisco Chronicle)

“Powerful yet tender…real and vibrant…Fishman never loses the reader’s trust. No line in this book rings false, no character is unheard, no event seems like a plot device.” (Newsweek)

Sly and subversive...smart and sardonic...a touching story about a tenacious way of life disappearing amid the prosperity of America.” (Wall Street Journal)

“Fishman’s firm yet light authorial hand, his gift for character and plot development, and his searing use of the English language belie his youth and his novice-novelist status. His witty dialogue and wry, believable descriptions leaven the dark, dense bread of the tale.” (Chicago Tribune)

“In the way the he presents these [truths] to us with feeling, humor and eyes wide open, novelist Fishman doesn’t miss a beat.” (NPR/All Things Considered)

“Mordantly funny and moving… Justice is eventually served in A REPLACEMENT LIFE along with plenty of black comedy, but the book is less about doing right or wrong than about where absolutes, moral or otherwise, do not apply … impressive.” (New York Times)

“Tova Reich and Shalom Auslander have delivered witty, nervy books on the subject. Add to their ranks Boris Fishman…Fishman humanizes the participants so well. Contemporary novelists have a bad habit of making immigrants appear monolithically earthy and good-natured, but Fishman knows better…deft and funny.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

“A memorable debut by a wonderfully gifted young writer...Boris Fishman has written a beautifully nuanced, tender, and often very funny novel about conscience and familial loyalty that will linger long in the memory.” (Joyce Carol Oates)

“Fishman is a stunning writer, and A REPLACEMENT LIFE deserves a wide audience.” (Jim Harrison)

“Boris Fishman fearlessly tackles the grandest subjects, among them the nature of honor and the transferability of suffering. That he succeeds this well, and with so much style and grace, marks him as a writer not only to watch but envy.” (Tom Bissell)

“A terrific talent dealing in serious themes… Fishman is a gifted and accomplished writer, an honest one, grounded in the real.” (Salvatore Scribona)

“A novel that works beautifully on many levels. It’s about the compromises involved in telling any story…Boris Fishman finds a new way to negotiate these tensions, a new language, even as he sometimes shows how he does it, a little magic act all its own.” (Arthur Phillips)

“A REPLACEMENT LIFE is a hell of a book. Told with amazing virtuosity, fun and serious, funny and sad, profound and eminently readable, it will make you happy until it’s over. And then you will be sad.” (Darin Strauss)

“A Replacement Life deftly straddles the line of a plot-driven novel of ideas and a moving account of a writer’s maturation…Fishman’s debut is suffused with elegant language and sly humor and composed with the authority of a novelist on intimate terms with both his subject matter and art form.” (Teddy Wayne, author of THE LOVE SONG OF JONNY VALENTINE)

“With a sense of humor and a sense of tragedy, A REPLACEMENT LIFE explores a hidden New York…There’s a touch of Gogol here, a touch of Babel, a touch of Dostoyevsky, but out of these materials Boris Fishman has fashioned something distinctively and triumphantly his own.” (Brian Morton, author of STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING)

“Boris Fishman’s A REPLACEMENT LIFE is so strong in voice, humor, and compassion that it transcends fiction’s limitations to become something wilder and more contained--like life. What a remarkable debut--true and resonant, humorous and real.” (Hilton Als)

“Beautifully written and occasionally quite funny…[a] complicated paradox of remaining loyal to one’s community while moving bravely into a new world.” (BookPage)

“Delightful…though the subject matter is largely dark, when you least expect it there is also humor which comes up and bites you in a most pleasant way… A REPLACEMENT LIFE is a brilliant first novel by a talented writer.” (Examiner.com)

“The debut novel from Fishman shines with a love for language and craft... Writers like Slava, and like Fishman, have a responsibility to do justice to the beauty in the details, and Fishman achieves that handily here.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))

“An ambitious young writer compromises his integrity for the sake of his Russian forebears in Fishman’s darkly comic, world-wise debut… Fishman thoughtfully raises questions of what Holocaust-era suffering is deserving of recompense. A smart first novel that’s unafraid to find humor in atrocity.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Fishman has talent galore, and an attractive love interest, funny set-pieces, a brochure-beautiful Big Apple, and spectacular, acutely self-conscious prose are all most enjoyable.” (Booklist)

“Fishman, an émigré from Belarus, captures the complexities of family, nationality, and history as he cleverly ties the loose ends of truth, justice, morality, and family into a tidy bow in his first novel.” (Library Journal)

“Fishman invests Slava’s moral quandary with realism and pathos, while resolving it in a way that’s simultaneously unpredictable and satisfying…Like his protagonist, Fishman manages to keep all these plates spinning, finally bringing them to a clean stop with impressive style.” (Shelf Awareness)

“A sharp, darkly funny debut novel…Irreverent but loving…Fishman explores themes of loyalty, morality, and history, and asks the sorts of questions that don’t have easy answers.”” (The Oregonian)

“[Fishman’s] tales offer the most powerful reckoning with the immigration experience by a Soviet-born American Jewish author this year-and, perhaps, to date.” (Tablet Magazine)

“Scintillating…a surprisingly wise novel that’s also full of more or less guilty laughs, a book that joins Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy as the first true post-Holocaust novels of our time. It’s highly recommended.” (OpenLettersMonthly.com)

“Boris Fishman’s ‘wickedly smart’ debut visits an immigrant culture readers have explored before, but it brims with descriptive brilliance and ‘crackles with irony.’” (The Week)

“Boris Fishman’s A REPLACEMENT LIFE is one of the year’s most memorable Jewish novels.” (Howard Freedman, JWeekly.com (San Francisco))

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (June 3, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062287877
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062287878
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (158 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #634,464 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Maine Colonial TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 2, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
When I read the description of A Replacement Life, I thought: Are you kidding? A book about a writer helping Russian Jews falsely claim Holocaust restitution funds? Considering we still have plenty of anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers around, it just seemed like breathtaking--maybe even offensive--chutzpah to write this.

Although this scheme is what moves the plot along, it's secondary to the real subject. The book is really about Slava's complicated love for his grandmother, who has just died. Her experiences when Minsk was overrun by the Nazis would have legitimately qualified her for restitution, Slava's grandfather, Yevgeny says, so why shouldn't you, Mr. Big Shot Writer, write an application for me? Slava has always wanted to be a real writer, and he's not getting anywhere in his job at Century magazine. He uses his best writing to tell his grandmother's story through these affidavits.

When I was little, like most kids I was so self-centered I had barely any curiosity about the pasts of my parents, grandparents and other relatives. That changed when I got older, and I was lucky enough to hear some of their stories. Now that they are gone, though, I wish I'd found out so much more. Same thing with Slava, and with the loss of his grandmother, he realizes her generation won't last much longer. These stories are his way of connecting with them, and of honoring his grandmother and her fellow survivors of World War II and the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union.

Boris Fishman has the kind of half-drunk love for the English language that you only see in writers for whom English is not their first language. It's a delight to read his flamboyant descriptions, unique associations and colorful depictions of the lives of eastern European immigrants in Brooklyn. These are characters and a side of immigrant America you won't see as a tourist.

4.5 stars
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
That's how Slava Gelman ultimately ends up rationalizing what he ends up doing for his grandfather and a cluster of his grandfather's elderly friends in Brooklyn's community of Soviet Jews. They survived the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union -- but in the wrong way, since they ended up fighting as partisans or soldiers, or ending up in exile in places like Uzbekistan, rather than in concentration camps or ghettos. Which means, alas, that they won't be eligible for some attractive new reparations offers from the German government. Unless, that is, Slava's grandfather -- known for his ability to finagle a great deal -- can persuade Slava, a wannabe writer stuck in limbo on the fringes of the staff at one of New York's most prestigious magazines, to use his thwarted talents in an entirely new direction. Perhaps, Yevgeny suggests, he can get a little bit creative with their letters of application. "You're a writer, aren't you?"

Thus begins what Slava knows to be a fraudulent endeavor, and yet it's one that he can't resist -- it brings him back in closer touch with the memory of his grandmother, who DID experience all of these things, but who has just died, as well as to the community from which until now he has tried to distance himself. It is those elements of this novel that brought Slava alive for me as a character: his frustration with his elders, his attempts to build a life as an American, even as his parents are stuck in the past. Fishman is at his best here, pointing out how "a Ukrainian's hate of a Russian was still warmer than his love of an American", and the way in which quitting the Soviet Union for the United States has left them "marooned on a new island except for what their children would do.
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I love this book. It is funny, smart and deceptively brilliant. Its such a fun read that one begins to forget how brilliantly constructed it is. This writer has talent in making a great novel both deep and entertaining. Top notch.
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What an interesting book. In the beginning, I had a slightly difficult time with the sometimes deliberately fractured English, but I got used to the writing as I continued to read the book. Imagine this: the main character, Slava,writes mostly made-up stories for people who want repatrations from the German Govn. because of crimes against Jews during WWll. Of course, these made up stories are what did, in fact, actually happen to some individuals during the war, but not necessarily to the people whom the writer is trying to help. Does Slava get caught? A major theme running through the book is the relationship the writer has to his now-deceased grandmother and his living grandfather. How do we get to know the stories of the departed? Who can tell the real stories of what these people lived through? Does it really matter in the end if the stories happened to this person rather than that person: don't all people who suffered under the Nazis deserve reparations?
Another theme in the book is the immigration story: these immigrants are Russian Jews. Though we have read their stories before, when told to us in this book, their stories take on extra poignancy. You ought not to rush through this book: enjoy the accents, the maneuvers of the people trying to influence Slava. And, don't forget two love stories that run through the book. Plus, Slava's love story with his deceased grandmother is enough to bring tears to the eyes. Enjoy
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