Dostoevsky in Brighton Beach

With Memoirs of a Muse (Pantheon, $22,95), debut novelist Lara Vapnyar gives us the smart, charming account of Tanya, a young Soviet emigre who is determined to inspire a great man. Meeting Mark, a celebrated New York writer, should set destiny in motion—but Tanya’s Marxist education has not prepared her for the neuroses of a thoroughly (and hilariously) stereotypical Upper West Side Jewish artist. Long before Tanya’s command of English allows her to read Mark’s books, she has been incorporated into his regime of vitamins, therapy, and jogging. As she acclimates to an American lifestyle, Tanya questions why Mark cares so much about his physical and mental health—would Dostoevsky jog, gulp protein smoothies, or summon a shrink to relieve him of his sadness?

In this highly literary milieu, Tanya reads herself and Mark against Dostoevsky and his lovers. Simultaneously, Vapnyar vividly portrays an Eastern European’s culture shock at encountering twenty-first-century America. A recent immigrant herself Vapnyar’s descriptions of disconnect are sharp: Brighton Beach’s Russian community preaches its brand of cultural immersion, featuring American clothes, half-price opera tickets, and computer-programming classes. Meanwhile, Tanya longs for distractions from this “jittery and ferocious” pursuit of the Ultimate American Dream. Vapnyar culls a layered tale of perceived destiny from an otherwise straightfoi-ward account of coming to America and beginning a love affair.

A perfect sarcastic edge emerges at just the right moments: introducing the muse motif, Vapnyar tells a story about Dostoevsky’s future lover Polina and her sister as children. A nursery governess peers into their coffee grounds to predict the girls’ futures in a dark, dated scene. Tanya’s crisp, modern voice then snaps the reader from the nineteenth century, noting that she had made up the anecdote.

Lara Vapnyar’s 2003 short story collection. There Are Jews in My House, was highly acclaimed for its treatment of the lives of newcomers. This newest offering cements her status.

Liz Kilstein works for the Institute of International Education in Washington, DC.