The book review supplement in the Sunday edition of The New York Times can always be counted on for interesting reading recommendations that aren’t necessarily on the best-seller list. That’s how I found Divide Me By Zero, a novel by Russian-born Lara Vapnyar, who now lives in the United States. Although the book is categorized as fiction I couldn’t help think that the story was largely autobiographical because there are so many parallels between the life of the author and her main character Katya, the daughter of a Russian math professor mother.
When Katya’s father is kicked out of the Communist party, loses his job and dies of a heart attack at the age of 40, her mother goes into deep mourning and endures a prolonged period of depression. Her mother’s seemingly strong and all-consuming love for her husband sets the bar unrealistically high for her daughter Katya when she seeks out married love for herself. Her parents’ love was very likely intensified by long and frequent absences from each other due to work.
At the age of 17, Katya becomes infatuated with Boris, her friend Sasha’s film teacher. Boris is married with a young child and Katya’s pain from unrequited love is mitigated somewhat by the fact she is young and realizes the impossibility of the situation. And, Boris and his young family have decided to emigrate to America. Out of sight; out of mind. By the age of 20, she has married Len, a young man who appears to offer everything a romantic young Russian woman could want in a husband. Len is kind, shares her intellectual interests, is hard-working and tolerates her widowed mother living with them.
When Katya’s uncle Grisha encourages Katya, her mother, and Len to also emigrate to America, they take advantage of the changing political climate in Russia under perestroika and move to New York. With basic English language skills, they are all able to get work and begin the typical American life that includes children and a house in the suburbs. Her mother is an important member of the family taking over maternal duties for Katya’s children.
Before long, Katya grows restless, feeling trapped and bored by her marriage. Then, her old love, Boris reappears on the scene and throws her life into turmoil. I don’t want to spoil the entire story here but the plot thickens when Katya is unable to put aside her love for Boris while married to Len. Then, a third suitor in the form of Victor, a rich Russian businessman appears on the scene. It was easy to visualize the character Victor with vivid author descriptions like, “Victor spoke a classic old-school British, but with forceful Russian undertones, which made simple sentences sound like military commands.” The reader accompanies Katya through all her dramas including her mother’s cancer diagnosis.
The author clearly enjoys using math as her central theme, as evidenced by the book’s title. Her real-life mother and the mother of her main character in the book are both math professors. Katya’s mother in the novel writes math textbooks. There are multiple references to mathematical equations that meant absolutely nothing to me as I regard math as a foreign language. Those references went way over my head but didn’t detract from the story. Lighter touches are fun to read: “In seventeen years of my marriage, I have spent 330 happy days with Len and 6,240 days ranging from desperately unhappy to simply uncomfortable. I wonder if this math is terribly sad or if this is how most marriages work. Bonus problem. Please calculate the percentage of happy days in my marriage. Then do the same with yours.”
The fact that I even picked up this book to read when the title clearly refers to math is unusual. But I have an everlasting love of reading about life in Russia written by Russians and because the early sections of this book take place in Russia, I couldn’t resist. It’s been several months since I’ve had a good Russian book in my hands. I’d love to visit the country and see it first-hand but my husband refuses to give Putin our tourist dollars.
I was constantly challenged to regard the book as fiction. The clear and precise descriptions of the emotional pain felt by Katya whose life seems to run so parallel to the author’s own life were hard to accept as pure fiction. There is even a black and white photo of the author incorporated into the storyline. Regardless of the veracity of the story, I enjoyed reading the book. The author includes a number of ‘asides’ for the benefit of the reader: “Note to women going to see the love of their life for the last time. Why, why, why do we think that what we wear matters?” I must confess, however, that I did find the ending unsatisfactory but I won’t explain why. I’ll leave that up to you to make your own determination. There are some humorous bits and some interesting bits about life in Russia that were wonderfully enlightening. It’s a fast, interesting read.
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