Memoirs of a Muse
In Lara Vapnyar's amusing first novel, a young Russian immigrant strives to emulate Dostoevski's mistress and become a great man's inspiration.
"Memoirs of a Muse," Lara Vapnyar's first novel (after the 2003 story collection "There Are Jews in My House"), is a little bit of many things: an immigrant novel, a literary satire, a bildungsroman. But most of all, it's a cautionary tale for that particular sort of young woman who yearns to attach herself to a man of genius. Vapnyar's narrator, Tanya, gets this notion into her head during her teenage years in Russia, and she tries to pattern her career as a muse after that of Apollinaria "Polina" Suslova, the mistress of Dostoevski. It almost goes without saying that both women end up disappointed with the muse's lot, but if Vapnyar goes on to say it anyway, she does so in an amusingly rueful way.
Tanya -- raised by a harried single mother and twice deserted by a father who left the family and then promptly died -- grows up feeling frustratingly unexceptional. She's neither especially pretty nor especially smart. She can do several things passably well. She longs to "become somebody accomplished, a luminary," but "that long-anticipated extraordinary talent still hadn't emerged. My many gifts rattled about like cheap jewelry in a sequined bag -- there wasn't a single gemstone." A lecherous schoolteacher insists that she is destined to become "the companion to a great man," and this, combined with the photographs of famous Russian writers her mother hangs on the walls of their Moscow apartment, persuades her that she is a born muse.