December 20, 2010

The Russian Debutante's Handbook :: Gary Shteyngart

Title: The Russian Debutante's Handbook
Author: Gary Shteyngart
Read: NYC, Paris, Boston
Format: Trade paperback

I read - and loved - Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart this summer. Shortly after finishing it, I went to see the author read at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was funny and nice and I decided to buy the only one of his novels I hadn't read and I had it signed - woo!

The next night, I was at the bar in Brooklyn I always go to and who should sidle up to the bar stool next to me? Gary Shteyngart. I did not talk to him because I am shy. However, I did take it as a sign that clearly I should read Russian Debutante asap.

And I would have. I mean, I started it asap. But despite being told by the sales associate at the Tenement Museum (and others) that this was the best of his books, I just couldn't latch on. I loved Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story and I'm very glad I read them first. Had I started with Russian Debutante, I would not have picked the others up.

I don't mean to say that TRDH was bad, because it was certainly not. However, plot-wise I found it unwieldy - even meandering at times - and I never did grow fond of Vladimir, our narrator, either. Plus, while I'm interested in some of the themes explored (immigration, assimilation, otherness, success, expectations, legitimacy), I felt that they exploded into a lot of directions and the result felt unruly.

All that said, I like Shteyngart's prose style. As a writer, he skillfully can turn a clever (yet not glib) phrase all while being sincere (and never saccharine). It's a difficult balance, but one Shteyngart achieves in all of his novels.

Some prefer Absurdistan to Super Sad True Love Story, but I don't. I think Shteyngart's work has steadily improved and even though I didn't love Russian Debutante, I look forward to reading all this author's future works. I like his style and sometimes that beats all.

Good writing in need of a story editor:
3 out of 5 stars.

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