Summary and book reviews of Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar

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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  • Published:
    Oct 2019, 360 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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About this Book

Book Summary

As a young girl, Katya Geller learned from her mother that math was the answer to everything. Now, approaching forty, she finds this wisdom tested.

She has lost the love of her life, she is in the middle of a divorce, and has just found out that her mother is dying. Half-mad with grief, Katya turns to the unfinished notes for her mother's last textbook, hoping to find guidance in mathematical concepts.

With humor, intelligence, and unfailing honesty, Katya traces back her life's journey: her childhood in Soviet Russia, her parents' great love, the death of her father, her mother's career as a renowned mathematician, and their immigration to the United States. She is, by turns, an adrift newlywed, an ESL teacher in an office occupied by witches and mediums, a restless wife, an accomplished writer, a flailing mother of two, a grieving daughter, and, all the while, a woman in love haunted by a question: how to parse the wild, unfathomable passion she feels through the cool logic of mathematics?

Award-winning author Lara Vapnyar delivers an unabashedly frank and darkly comic tale of coming-of-age in middle age. Divide Me by Zero is almost unclassifiable―a stylistically original, genre-defying mix of classic Russian novel, American self-help book, Soviet math textbook, sly writing manual, and, at its center, an intense romance that captures the most common misfortune of all: falling in love.

Excerpt
Divide me by zero

One week before my mother died, I went to a Russian food store on Staten Island to buy caviar. I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents. I never thought of it as extravagant or a romantic delicacy. My mother would offer me some before important tests in school, because it was chock-full of phosphorus that supposedly stimulated brain cells. I remember eating caviar before school, at seven am, still in my pajamas, shivering from the morning cold, seated in the untidy kitchen of our Moscow apartment, yawning and dangling my legs, bumping my knees against the boards of our folding table, holding that piece of bread spread with a thin layer of butter and thinner layer of caviar.

I did eat caviar in a romantic setting once. With a very rich Russian man who I agreed to marry even though I was still married to Len and still in love with B.

"Caviar," I said to the sullen Russian woman ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

At its core this is a book about human connection—forced connection, organic connection and everything in between. There's a certain universality to her conflict that will resonate with most readers, despite the backdrop of Russian immigration that makes this story so singular. With refreshing honesty and expertly employed tongue in cheek humor, Divide Me By Zero is a whip-smart, razor-sharp book that defies easy genre categorization, but which leaves a lasting impression...continued

Full Review (523 words).

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(Reviewed by Rachel Hullett).

Media Reviews

New York Times
"The framing can feel contrived, though it’s in keeping with Vapnyar’s track record: deeply affecting but playful, edging into cutesy...Divide Me by Zero is a mordant tribute to lost loves, none more beloved or irretrievably lost than Katya’s mother.

Kirkus Reviews
It's almost impossible to put the book down...A poignant, vivid, and frequently funny novel.

Publishers Weekly
Among the many pleasures of the novel is Vapnyar's portrayal of the intellectual connection Katya has with her children, which is disarmingly lovely. Throughout, Vapnyar expertly exposes selfish desires and quiet discontent. This is a frank, amusing, and melancholy novel.

Booklist (starred review)
Woven together with math concepts and plenty of raw feelings, this is a love story for those who are forever engaged in the pursuit of happiness.

Author Blurb Cynthia Sweeney
Everything I love about Lara Vapnyar's vision and voice?her blazing intelligence, skewering wit and exuberant prose?is contained in this wild and witty novel. I don't know how her work manages to feel absolutely timely and perfectly timeless all at once.

Author Blurb Rivka Galchen
Lara Vapnyar is one of my very favorite writers: funny and true and with the rare talent to assemble one ideally telling scene after another. She is also one of the few writers I would recommend to all my friends, with all their varying tastes, because the charisma of her storytelling is unmissable.

Author Blurb Helen Phillips
Divide Me by Zero is a keen, penetrating novel about the quest for love?romantic and otherwise?that drives one woman's life. Lara Vapnyar brilliantly evokes (by way of, yes, math) a span of decades, a pair of continents, and a plethora of uneasy emotions. This book is so unflinchingly honest about the human condition that I couldn't put it down.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)

Black and white photo of Joseph Brodsky with a kitten on his shoulderBorn in 1940 in Leningrad, Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky, known to English speakers as Joseph Brodsky, was a Russian-American poet and Nobel Prize laureate, whose works and life feature heavily in Lara Vapnyar's novel Divide Me By Zero.

Brodsky was raised in poverty; his father had lost his position with the Russian Navy for being Jewish, and Brodsky was forced to drop out of school at 15 and take on a number of odd jobs. During this time he taught himself English and Polish and also discovered a love of poetry. (Even late in his career he would often write his poetry in Russian and translate it himself into English.) He was introduced to Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in 1961, and she became his close friend and mentor.

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