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Summary and book reviews of Memoirs of a Muse by Lara Vapnyar

Memoirs of a Muse

A Novel

by Lara Vapnyar

Memoirs of a Muse
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    Apr 2006, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2007, 224 pages

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Book Summary

A young Russian girl moves to New York, where she becomes mistress and muse to a novelist.

Lara Vapnyar, author of the prizewinning story collection There Are Jews in My House, brings us 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 life’s 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 Novelist.

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 English—struggling to better understand Mark’s work and her true role as Muse—Tanya also learns more than she expected about the destiny she has imagined for herself.

Animated by Vapnyar’s beguiling grace and vividness - with a narrative richness reflecting the great tradition of Russian realism to which she is a natural heir - Memoirs of a Muse is an altogether wonderful novel. It is a lively meditation on female capabilities and happiness, on the mysteries of artistic inspiration (and the absurdities of artistic life), and, perhaps most movingly, on the pain and wonder of the immigrant experience in New York City.

Chapter One

A Parisian hotel room. A man sits at a round table across from a woman. There is a tea tray between them: two glasses in silver holders, with a transparent liquid changing from muddy brown to dark red depending on the light. A saucer with pale lemon wedges, a crystal sugar bowl, a plate of French pastry, two silver spoons lost on the shiny surface of the tray.

The woman is young, with a broad, well-defined face framed with heavy waves of auburn hair. Her lips are squeezed tight. Her small eyes are intense, alert. She is watching the man. The man is in his forties, short, heavy, with a scant beard and a lumpy bald patch, visible to the woman because his head is hung low. He has sinewy hands and the prominent forehead of a great Russian writer.

He is, in fact, a great Russian writer. He is Fedor Dostoevsky. And the woman is Apollinaria Suslova, his lover. Or his former lover, because she has just informed him that she has fallen in love with somebody else.

He is ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

A good book but one that doesn't reach the high notes of Vapnya's earlier book of short stories, There Are Jews In My House. On the upside, the 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.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The Miami Herald

Her first novel is unbalanced, with disappointing early chapters that drag with coming-of-age cliches.

The New York Times - Ken Kalfus

She's clearly a talented writer, possessed of ample humor and insight and a humane sensibility, but her own epic literary achievement lies somewhere in the future. By whatever mysterious means it comes - through love or sex, through spiritual possession or a sky-shredding bolt of divine lightning, through serendipity or painful, plodding work - she awaits her own strong draft of writerly inspiration.

The Boston Globe - Gail Caldwell

Memoirs of a Muse is not driven by gorgeous prose or voice; it is, rather, a carefully wrought story full of generous intelligence that testifies to the essence of language: both to capture meaning and then convey it, whether the lusty reach of bodice-rippers or the bittersweet story of a girl on the sidewalks of a new New York, alone.

San Francisco Chronicle

As much as Vapnyar skewers the would-be-great male novelist, she also turns her critical eye on the social climbing ambitions of Tanya's Russian relatives -- culture vultures who only want the best for Tanya as long as her best is no better than theirs -- and on Tanya herself.

Library Journal

Memoirs would probably have worked more successfully as a short story.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Vapnyar has fashioned a knowing, irreverent, and toothsome ode to the imagination, a power that all too often leads us astray

Publisher's Weekly

Starred review. This is a wonderfully fresh portrait of the romantic imagination and its inevitable collision with reality

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Beyond the Book

Lara Vapnyar emigrated from Russia to New York in 1994 and began publishing short stories in English in 2002. She lives on Staten Island and is pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature at CUNY Graduate Center. The inspiration for Memoirs of a Muse came from her graduate studies.  One of her options for a PhD project was to ...

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