In our age of infatuation with stars of films and television, the idea of a bright and sensitive young woman attaching herself to an established writer in the hope of spurring him to feats of literary greatness may seem quaint. Yet it's that notion that animates Lara Vapnyar's accomplished first novel and infuses it with its quiet pleasures.

Inspired by the prediction of a high school teacher that someday she'll be the companion to a great man, Tanya Rumer graduates from college and moves from Russia to New York City, where she shares a dreary Brighton Beach apartment with her aunt and uncle and earns a modest living performing menial chores in a dentist's office. One day she wanders into a reading by Mark Schneider, a middle-aged novelist and teacher. Soon, she's sharing his penthouse overlooking Central Park, believing she's found the literary giant whose work she'll enrich with her love and tender guidance.

It doesn't take Tanya long to become disenchanted with her role as Mark's muse, as he spends more time working out and consulting his therapist than he does at his writing desk. Tanya struggles to learn English until she trades some of Mark's writing for the romance novels shared by a friendly neighbor. All along, she ponders the fates of Dostoevsky's muses Polina, his mistress, and Anna, his wife whose stories are revealed through excerpts from Polina's diary and the writer's biography, comparing her quest for meaning in her role to theirs. When Mark finally produces his third novel, Tanya makes a startling discovery that helps reveal her life's true path.

Vapnyar, herself a Russian emigrant to New York, has been writing in English only since 1994, but no signs of unfamiliarity with an adopted language mar her prose. Her short story collection, There Are Jews in My House, revealed a talent for deft characterization and keen psychological insight. That same talent is amply displayed in this charming novel, whose readers will agree she's a young writer who bears watching.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

 

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