Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: The Russian Debutante's Handbook

The Russian Debutante's HandbookThe Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Like the author, Vladimir Girshkin immigrated from Russia to the United States as a boy, grew up in New York, and attended Oberlin (not named here). Hence, it is not unreasonable to assume an autobiographical element here.



I don't consider that a weakness.



Vladimir is the opposite of a picaro. Instead of getting into scrapes and living by his wits, Vladimir is generally carried along like a cork. Through various scrapes he manages to come out okay, but he is generally acted upon, rather than actor. If he is the Russian debutante, he is badly in need of a handbook.



Where the book excels is in its exploration of identity. Vladimir moved to the United States at fourteen and settles into what he sees as his natural role, that of a beta immigrant. As the novel progresses, we see him in other identities: minor bureaucrat, hipster hanger-on, organized crime boss. His mother excoriates him for "walking like a Jew", while a few months later his American girlfriend in Prague characterizes him as a "chewer of cud".



The questions his adventures raise are whether he will recognize and survive the real consequences of his choices, which of his adopted homelands he will wind up in, and whether he will ever achieve an identity he defines for himself, rather than take what is assigned to him.



Meanwhile, although not perfect, the book provides some colorful characters, some real laughs, and what I would call an entertaining read.



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