Vapnyar, Lara 1971-
Vapnyar, Lara 1971-
Home—New York, NY.
There Are Jews in My House (short stories), Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Memoirs of a Muse (novel), Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2008.
Contributor to various publications including Zoetrope: All Story, Open City, and New Yorker.
Lara Vapnyar, born and raised in the former Soviet Union, immigrated in 1994 to the United States and learned much of her English by watching television and by reading the works of Jane Austen and Alice Munro. In 2002 she began to publish her own stories, written in English.
There Are Jews in My House is Vapnyar's first book, a collection of six stories that deal with Russian or Russian-American experiences of loss and change. In the title story, a young woman initially agrees to give asylum to a Jewish friend and her friend's daughter during World War II, but finds her feelings have altered once the Holocaustic events are set in motion. Old resentments and prejudices come to mind, and in the midst of a walk, she considers going to Gestapo headquarters and turning the women in. She returns home, feeling guilty about her thoughts, to find her houseguests have already fled. "A Question for Vera" also examines Russian anti-Semitism, this time through the story of a young girl who is bullied by a classmate because she is Jewish. Sam Munson, in a review for Commentary, found these two the weakest stories in the collection, because "the fictional elements are forced to play second fiddle to the animating idea, with a consequent loss of narrative power."
Munson considered "Love Lessons, Mondays, 9 AM" and "Ovrashki's Trains" the most powerful works in the volume. The protagonist of "Love Lessons" is a naive Russian math teacher who is forced to teach a girls' sex-education class. She finds herself doing so based on the reading of a text book and the advice of her more experienced aunt until an encounter with the local womanizer liberates her sexually. In "Ovrashki's Trains," a very young girl waits every night for her father's return, only to learn eventually that he has been dead for most of her life and her mother has been unwilling to tell her. Munson remarked that "the way in which Vapnyar handles the details of this revelation, seen from the viewpoint of the girl, is extraordinary." Of the collection, the critic stated: "With her surgical economy of means, Vapnyar … has made a compelling statement against the sterile and self-obsessed excesses of much modern American writing."
According to several reviewers, There Are Jews in My House reflects the unevenness of style typical of a young author, yet the overall quality is still extraordinarily high. Vince Passaro, reviewing the collection for O, wrote that Vapnyar's writing "has an exciting flawlessness, like a perfectly cut stone." Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman remarked that, "writing with rinsed-clean lucidity and keen receptivity to the ridiculous and the sublime, Vapnyar portrays resilient individuals who counter loss and displacement with a covert faith in romance." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly commented that "the six understated stories in this debut collection are beautifully crafted and unswerving in their exploration of human frailty."
Vapnyar's first novel, Memoirs of a Muse, "focuses on the experiences of a young woman not unlike herself," wrote Malena Watrous in the San Francisco Chronicle, "who moves to Manhattan and is promptly folded into New York's literary scene." Vapnyar's protagonist Tanya Fumer is obsessed with the life of Fydor Dostoevsky while growing up in Russia, and she evolves an ambition to become the muse of a similar man. "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," Book Slut contributor Melynda Fuller explained. "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." Soon she encounters a New York writer named Mark Schneider, moves into his apartment, and works toward becoming his inspiration. She finds, though, that Mark is much more bourgeois than her concept of the real writer allows. "Tanya slowly discovers that Mark is an ordinary human being," Ken Kalfus wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "and, even worse, that she is too: not a goddess, after all, unable to move him to creation of the sublime." Vapnyar's "talent is amply displayed in this charming novel," Harvey Freedenberg concluded in Book Page, "whose readers will agree she's a young writer who bears watching."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, November 15, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of There Are Jews in My House, p. 582; February 15, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of Memoirs of a Muse, p. 42.
Boston Globe, May 7, 2006, Gail Caldwell, "A Vivid Moscow on the Hudson."
Commentary, March, 2004, Sam Munson, "Abroad at Home," p. 68.
Entertainment Weekly, April 7, 2006, "A Muse, Herself," p. 65.
Library Journal, January, 2004, Lisa Nussbaum, review of There Are Jews in My House, p. 162; March 1, 2006, Tania Barnes, review of Memoirs of a Muse, p. 79.
New York Times, December 24, 2003, Richard Eder, "Administering Emotions, One Thwack at a Time," p. E14.
New York Times Book Review, December 21, 2003, Boris Fishman, "Young People's Guide," p. 4; April 9, 2006, Ken Kalfus, "From Russia with Love," p. 27.
O, the Oprah Magazine, January, 2004, Vince Passaro, "From Russia with Dazzle: Her Flawless Stories Put Lara Vapnyar on the Map," p. 96; April, 2006, "Sex and Sensibility: A Mischievous Novel of a Young Woman's Literary Dreams and Erotic Aspirations," p. 214.
Publishers Weekly, October 6, 2003, review of There Are Jews in My House, p. 57; February 27, 2006, Caryn James, review of Memoirs of a Muse, p. 31.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 2006, Malena Watrous, "Destined to Serve a Genius, She Gets a Dud."
Book Page,http://www.bookpage.com/ (February 13, 2008), Harvey Freedenberg, "A Sparkling Tale of Literary Inspiration."
Book Slut,http://www.bookslut.com/ (February 13, 2008), Melynda Fuller, review of Memoirs of a Muse.
Random House Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/ (July 26, 2004).
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (February 13, 2008), Laura Miller, review of Memoirs of a Muse.
Zoetrope: AllStory Online,http://www.all-story.com/ (July 26, 2004), "Lara Vapnyar."