In her warm, absorbing and keenly observed new novel, Lara Vapnyar follows the intertwined lives of four immigrants in New York City as they grapple with love and tumult, the challenges of a new home, and the absurdities of the digital age.
Vica, Vadik, Sergey and Regina met in Russia in their school days, but remained in touch and now have very different American lives. Sergey cycles through jobs as an analyst, hoping his idea for an app will finally bring him success. His wife Vica, a medical technician struggling to keep her family afloat, hungers for a better life. Sergey’s former girlfriend Regina, once a famous translator is married to a wealthy startup owner, spends her days at home grieving over a recent loss. Sergey’s best friend Vadik, a programmer ever in search of perfection, keeps trying on different women and different neighborhoods, all while pining for the one who got away.
As Sergey develops his app—calling it “Virtual Grave,” a program to preserve a person’s online presence after death—a formidable debate begins in the group, spurring questions about the changing perception of death in the modern world and the future of our virtual selves. How do our online personas define us in our daily lives, and what will they say about us when we’re gone?
“Didn’t they joke at university that for Sergey brilliant ideas came as easily as farts?’
Vapnyar’s writing is like talking to your most jaded friend, and I mean that as a compliment. Her characters never failed to show their weaknesses, because who the heck wants to read about perfect people that never reveal their ugliness. Sergey is brilliant but brilliance does not mean automatic success and riches. He may well be too brilliant for himself. His wife Vica is certainly second-guessing her choice in husband, the once stimulating man is less appealing as he can’t seem to keep a job or offer anything solid. Vica struggles with jealousy for Sergey’s former ex Regina, whom while having seemingly nailed her own American dream by marrying a much older wealthy man is heartbroken with loss. Vadik was once with Vica before she left him for the more exciting Sergey. Vadik swims in an ocean of women but does he still long for Vica? Does Vica like it this way, as a sort of back up man?
I didn’t warm to Vica, though I understood her unhappiness and regrets. She focused too much on Regina, “She had always been clumsy and unkempt, and not very hygienic. Now that she was a rich man’s wife, she had managed to clean up a bit, but she seemed to wear her newfound wealth like a thin layer over her former self.” Regina seemed less interested in her financial status than Vica did, and certainly didn’t wear her wealth in a smug way. Of course, the resentment that Regina came out on top while Vica has to carry her family is what makes Vica believable. She isn’t the most empathic person, in fact she seems to think happiness is elsewhere and poor Vadik is a third wheel of sorts in Sergey and Vica’s life. Vica seemingly suffers from the common affliction, what if disease. She is never happy with what she has, wondering if the grass is greener, looking back or ahead and never at peace with what is. It’s understandable with her husband letting her down so much.
The fact that they are Russian lends an exotic feel. Particularly the difference between the way they view life as opposed to some Americans do. The idea of getting what you deserve because you work hard for it, which Europeans often feel is an American naive belief, isn’t something easily embraced by immigrants. Getting one’s fair share of the pie is an American right that people in other countries can’t afford. Regina feeling at times her being this ideal Russian woman is what makes her appealing to her husband, I can well imagine it would be in the back my mind too were I her. Would their lives had been better lived in Russia, was it worth leaving for America?
Just what does happiness look like? Regina is the character I felt the most connected with. It seemed Vica and Sergey acted as though they were the main stars in the friends lives, but Regina had more story, even if she felt less vibrant. The apps were funny, because they do run some of our lives. Apps, the new ‘American Gold’ and particularly the grave app. Sergey, Vica, Vadik and Regina are trying to figure out how and just who to be to themselves and each-other.