Like the uneasy heroine of her beautifully observant and funny first novel Memoirs of a Muse, Lara Vapnyar is an immigrant to New York from Moscow who taught herself English by reading romance novels. But it remains a mystery how Vapnyar assimilated the curlicued language of loins and lust into her own strikingly clear, wry English prose to describe cultural upheaval, sexual awakening, and artistic growth. Tanya Rumer, Memoirs' unsentimental narrator, drowses through her Moscow girlhood inspired by what she reads of Polina Suslova, lover and muse of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In the apartment she shares with her mother and, for a time, with her dying grandmother Tanya vows that one day she too will be the muse of a great writer. ''There was no place for beets, crusted snot, or yelling in my fantasies of marriage,'' she decides.
Yet when Tanya arrives in the New World of Brooklyn after college, staying with relatives in an immigrant enclave as Old World as pickled beets, the muse-worthy writer she settles on is a sorry substitute for a genius: Mark Schneider, a garden-variety narcissist with a gym membership, a shrink, a doorman apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and a self-absorption that makes Tanya rethink her life's goals.
Vapnyar first demonstrated her marvelous English-language writing voice in her 2003 story collection, There Are Jews in My House. And the not unpleasant lurching quality to Tanya's progress in Memoirs suggests the author is still learning the right narrative rhythms to suit novel-length storytelling of a Vapnyar variety. It's already easy, though, to identify that Vapnyar touch, and to fall under its spell.