Excerpt from Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Divide Me By Zero

by Lara Vapnyar

Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar X
Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2019, 360 pages

    Nov 2020, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

I fixed her pillow and stroked her on the side of her head above her right temple. She closed her eyes and turned away from me.

I went upstairs to look for my kids. I found both of them in their rooms. Nathalie, 13, was curled up on her bed, asleep, her tear-streaked face pressed into the open paperback of Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep—the book that she kept rereading over that summer.

Dan, 16, greasy hair, unwashed clothes, was hunched over his laptop playing Minecraft, building a virtual castle with a virtual tower that led right into the virtual sky. I walked up to him and touched him on the shoulder.

"What? Grandma's calling?" he asked, ready to rush downstairs.

I shook my head and walked out of his room. Both kids seemed to be a picture of neglect but also a picture of normalcy. Neither of them wanted me at the moment.

There was no excuse not to do the work that I urgently needed to do. I went into my bedroom and opened my laptop. A long queue of emails filled me with panic. Some were from my students, who wanted me to look at their stories, others from the college admins, urging me to order books or confirm my schedule. A few were from various editors offering me one or another freelance assignment. My book editor was politely inquiring when I was going to deliver the novel I hadn't started. I had been earning my living as a writer for about 12 years now, a fact that made me immensely proud, especially since I had been earning my living as an American writer, working in my second language. But the thing about making your living as a writer is that you need to be writing in order to make a living. You need to be writing a lot, and writing well, and I wasn't writing at all. Then there was an urgent email from my agent asking me to describe my future novel in a hundred words or less.

"I'd love to write the novel about Love and Death," I typed. "How both of those words lost their majestic old meanings. People don't really 'love' each other anymore, they either 'worked on a relationship' or 'succumbed to sexual desire.' People don't 'die' either, they 'lost their battles' with various diseases or they simply 'expired' like old products on a shelf. Neither love nor death is considered the most important passage in the life of a person anymore. In my new novel, I would try to restore their proper meanings."

My agent shot back an answer almost right away.

"Is it going to be a comedy?"

I was shocked and even a little insulted. Comedy? Why comedy?

But then I thought that comedy, a very dark comedy, a comedy so dark that it made you cry, was the only form that would allow me to write with all honesty. If I were to truly open up in this novel, and there wasn't any point in writing it unless I did, I would need comedy, a lot of comedy, to create a protective layer shielding me from being too exposed, guarding me from sounding too bitter. And then wasn't life itself a perfect dark comedy too, with its journey to an inevitable tragic ending interspersed with absurd events providing comic relief?

I was about to put that in writing when I heard a strange sound coming from my mother's room. I shut my laptop and rushed to her.

It was all quiet. My mother was still asleep, in the same position, breathing hard. Perhaps I had simply invented the strange sound so I wouldn't have to deal with my emails.

I sat down at my mother's table, which also served as her desk, littered with pill bottles, grocery receipts, hospice papers, random medical equipment, various food items, and yellow flash cards with my mother's notes for her new book.

In Russia, she had been a famous author of math textbooks for children. She had published her last right before we emigrated, so this was going to be her first book in 20 years, and her first book written in English. She said that she had this sudden and stunning insight on how to make a math textbook that would guide you through life.

From Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar. Used with the permission of the publisher, Tin House Books. Copyright © 2019 by Lara Vapnyar.

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