Memoirs of a Muse by Lara Vapnyar
Lara Vapnyar tends to write about what she knows -- the lives of Russian immigrants in New York City -- and she does it with poignant flair. After emigrating in 1994 from Russia, Vapnyar learned to speak and read English by watching soap operas and reading romance novels, not unlike the heroine of her first novel, Memoirs of a Muse. Less than a decade after arriving in the US, Vapnyar published a lauded collection of short stories, There are Jews in My House, and saw her work published in magazines like The New Yorker. While Memoirs of a Muse is different in format, its theme and quality leave no less of an impact.
From an early age, Tanya Fumer, a Dostoyevsky-obsessed child living in Russia, listens to stories told by her grandmother about the great writers of their country. When she hears that Dostoyevsky had two different colored eyes, one brown, one black, Tanya decides that there is no other man for her. He even shares his name with her grandfather, Fedor Mikhailovich. When she asks if Dostoyevsky has a wife she is told that he is dead. Tanya studies the women in Dostoyevsky’s life, hoping that this will help her to attract a similar man and prepare her to become the perfect muse. The stories of his muse, Apollinaria Suslova, and his second wife, Anna Grigorievna, haunt Tanya as she navigates her new life in the United States.
After graduating from college, Tanya immigrates to Brooklyn where her aunt, uncle and cousin have lived for years. On her days off from her job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, she frequents a city bookstore where she meets Mark Schneider, an accomplished writer, during a reading. Immediately her path seems clear: she will become Mark’s muse. Without a second thought, Tanya quits her job and takes up residence in Mark’s Upper West Side apartment. However, Tanya quickly becomes the ubiquitous housemate willing to play to Mark’s fantasies, rather than the love of Mark’s life.
Tanya’s dedication to her calling as a muse and complete absorption with Mark and his needs (e.g. wiping the dripping milk from his beard and filling his coffee cup when it’s empty), leaves little room for any personal epiphanies in her new home. In fact, it’s almost startling how little she misses Russia and how easily she seems to fall right into her life in the U.S. She’s either extremely self-assured or rather naïve -- her dependence on Mark, and contentment with being a kept woman rather than a muse, points towards the latter. However, as Tanya’s initial blind adoration of Mark becomes peppered with real-life experiences and knowledge, Vapnyar beautifully blends the old world with the new. Sadly, this doesn’t last for more than a few chapters. The quick skimming of Tanya’s metamorphosis through the last third of the novel is a huge disappointment. The reader is left with a feeling of being cheated out of the most interesting details in the life of a character who is initially portrayed vividly.
Although Tanya and Mark’s affair is the focus of the novel, the most memorable portions are the descriptions of Tanya’s family. From the first few chapters detailing Tanya’s relationship with her grandmother to several uncomfortable moments shared with her cousin, Dena, Tanya’s relatives become the heart of the text. Vapnyar’s ability to use language to create not only a scene but also an ambiance is incredible and she captures the experience of Tanya’s relatives as only an insider could. Tanya describes with both candor and warmth her uncle spending half of his month’s food stamps on bad food to impress her. The wrinkles in her uncle’s clothes fold with grace and the smell of fish soup and smoked salmon radiates from the pages. The reader feels an intimate connection to the characters rather than pity for them.
While no single aspect of the book stands out, no larger than life characters or complicated plot twists, Memoirs of a Muse works perfectly as a complete package. As the plot slows, the characters reveal more about themselves. Like a short story, every word and element is essential in maintaining the world that Vapnyar so skillfully creates.
Memoirs of a Muse by Lara Vapnyar