From the book
jacket: a poignant and comic first
novel about a delightfully sincere
modern-day muse. We meet Tanya as a
typical Russian girl, living with her
bookish professor mother in a drab
Soviet apartment. As a teenager, Tanya
becomes obsessed with Dostoevsky and
settles on her lifes calling: she will
be the companion to a great writer. Her
memoirs tell of her immigration to New
York after college, the stifling
expectations of her Brighton Beach
cousins, and the crucial moment in a
bookshop on the Upper West Side, where
Tanya attends a reading by Mark
Schneider, a Significant New York
Tanya soon moves in with Mark, ready to dazzle in bed, to serve and inspire . . . if only he would spend a little more time writing and a little less time at the gym, the shrink, and the literary soirees where she feels hopelessly unglamorous and out of place. But as she gradually learns to read Englishstruggling to better understand Marks work and her true role as MuseTanya also learns more than she expected about the destiny she has imagined for herself.
Comment: I recollect being stunned reading Vapnyar's debut collection of short stories, There Are Jews in My House, not least because she wrote it in 2003 only 10-years after emigrating to the USA from Russia, so I greatly looked forward to her first novel, Memoirs of A Muse; but just as for Vapnyar's protagonist, reality didn't didn't quite live up to expectations. It is a good book but somehow didn't reach the high-notes I hoped for. It is essentially two stories - one about Tatiana/Tanya, obsessed with the idea of becoming a muse to a great artist; the other about Polina Suslova, mistress to Dostoevsky, and Tatiana's inspiration - but the latter story tends to distract from the main thread, instead of adding to.
On the upside, Vapnya's razor-sharp vignettes of Tatiana's Russian relatives living in the USA, and in fact all her character descriptions, are strong and often quietly amusing; but at the end of the day I just couldn't bring myself to feel a connection with Tatiana. For a great immigrant story I recommend The Rug Merchant and for a hysterically baudy muse story try Breath and Bones by Susan Cokall.
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This review was originally published in April 2006, and has been updated for the April 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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