A Romantic Comedy So Dark It Makes You Cry


By Lara Vapnyar

There are a handful of novelists who excel in describing, often from ludicrously comic heights, the Russian-American experience. Call it the Borscht Shelf: Gary Shteyngart, Boris Fishman and the resplendent Lara Vapnyar. Vapnyar’s latest novel begins with an exquisitely distilled example of her gifts: “One week before my mother died, I went to a Russian food store on Staten Island to buy caviar.” The moment is couched in depressive humor (“I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents”) and chased with deflating truth (her mother doesn’t even want the caviar). The narrator eats it herself, feeling “as if I were robbing a grave.”

The woman sobbing over the fish counter is Katya Geller: novelist, mother of two teenagers, professor of creative writing at “Enormous University” in New York. She is separated from her husband, Len, longing pointlessly for her lover, B., and dating Victor, a fastidious billionaire whom she introduces to friends as “a Russian Great Gatsby.” In Russia, her mother, Nina, was a renowned writer of children’s math textbooks. Now being treated at “the World’s Greatest Cancer Center,” Nina sleeps among pill bottles and yellow flashcards, the refuse of her final project, “a math textbook that would guide you through life.” And Katya is considering her next novel, “a comedy so dark that it made you cry.”

“Divide Me by Zero,” which begins with Katya’s Russian childhood and ends in her American middle age, is structured throughout with Nina’s flash cards and various missives from Katya: “note to an astute reader,” “note to a politically astute reader,” “note to a reader about to scream at her mother.” (The content of these notes leans toward the tediously self-evident. “Note to children of parents. Parents do have their own problems.”) The framing can feel contrived, though it’s in keeping with Vapnyar’s track record: deeply affecting but playful, edging into cutesy. The world hews closely to Vapnyar’s own life (note to an attentive reader: Vapnyar’s mother taught math), but everything about it is slightly notched up, surreal. Consider the photo illustration breezily equating Brezhnev with an iguana, or the one ringing George H. W. Bush’s head with raw chicken thighs, like greasy laurels.

Katya’s early memories of her mother are fond but punishing: Her heavy perfume is “like being slapped across the face by a bouquet of flowers.” Katya’s father, an oceanographer, dies of a heart attack after his Communist Party membership is revoked. His death doesn’t affect Katya much — “I was used to his absences, and his being dead didn’t differ that much from his being away” — but her mother’s halfhearted presence is deeply damaging. They move to her maternal grandparents’ apartment in Moscow, where her mother drifts through the rooms like a ghost and Katya’s life takes on the brutal contours of a fairy tale.

“I was left in the care of my grandparents,” Katya recalls, “whom I hardly knew and didn’t love.” When her mother isn’t dressing her like a boy, she orders her to wear pants under her dresses. (“You don’t want to chill your ovaries,” Nina explains.) Katya spends lonely afternoons swooning over Soviet problem sets. “A boy and a girl went to the outskirts of their town to take meteorological measurements.” Are they, perhaps, holding hands? As a teenager she falls in love with B., an invitingly sensitive film professor too craven to return her affections or firmly turn her away. B. and his wife move to America, and Katya marries unremarkable Len.

Like Vapnyar, Katya moves with her husband to New York, where they share a cramped apartment. While Len works as a computer programmer and bickers with Nina, who moves in with them, Katya practices English by watching “Pretty Woman” and “Wall Street.” Still, she doesn’t speak confidently enough “for working with people, or with animals, for that matter,” as Katya puts it after a dog-walking service turns her down. Eventually she takes a doctored diploma down to a Sheepshead Bay tutoring center/alternative clinic, where the uncredentialed doctor gives pep talks to drooping Slavic penises and the sulky receptionist is billed as “Evelina, the authentic witch from the woods of western Ukraine.” Katya devises a popular tutoring course for live-in Russian nannies, prominently featuring “Pretty Woman.” Then she begins writing stories in English, propelling her into a successful career as a teacher and novelist.

So goes the bildungsroman half of the novel, which hits its stride midway as a brutally sad romantic comedy. As Katya’s marriage stagnates, she unexpectedly crosses paths with B. again. They fall for each other utterly, but he hasn’t changed. Still unable to commit, B. begins signing his formally rapturous emails to Katya “lo.” and not “love,” “as if to suggest that what we had was truncated and incomplete.”

“Lack of love wasn’t only empty space,” Vapnyar writes. “Like negative numbers, it had the ability to multiply and grow.” This is a commentary on Katya’s love life, but it could just as easily describe Katya’s relationship with her mother, which grows steadily from the pain of Nina’s initial absence into an unspeakable rupture. Katya doubles back between Victor and B. and the possibility that she can stomach Len, and while lost in her heartbreak notices, too late for caviar or numerically inspired self-help to fix, that her mother has quietly been overtaken by metastatic ovarian cancer. “Divide Me by Zero” is a mordant tribute to lost loves, none more beloved or irretrievably lost than Katya’s mother.

Jamie Fisher has recently completed a novel set in postwar Italy.

By Lara Vapnyar
Illustrated. 353 pp. Tin House Books. $24.95.

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