Book of the Day: “Still Here”
Lara Vapnyar’s absorbing new novel is about immigrating to America, where life must be managed despite dashed hopes and disappointments. Expanding the reach of her previous novels, The Scent of Pine and Memoirs of a Muse, Still Here explores the overlapping lives of a quartet of friends who struggle with love and ambition in their chosen country.
Vica, Vadik, Sergey and Regina met as students in Moscow. Though each of them has achieved their dream of coming to America, life in the Big Apple is not what they expected. Sergey has one disastrous low-level job after another and spends most of his energy trying to perfect Virtual Grave, an app that will allow people to preserve their online presence after death. Putting aside plans for medical school, his spirited wife, Vica, struggles to keep the family financially solvent. Sergey’s old girlfriend Regina, now married to a wealthy American businessman, mourns her former career as a translator and her place at the center of Moscow’s rich literary culture, while Sergey’s best friend, Vadik, moves from neighborhood to neighborhood and girlfriend to girlfriend, searching for the woman and the sense of opportunity he found on his very first night in New York.
The creation of Virtual Grave proves the focus of much of the action as the four friends debate its potential value, how best to market it and what the app reveals about the commercial culture surrounding death. But these discussions also spur questions about how to define success and what it really means to leave a legacy.
Vapnyar is a brilliant observer of the differences between Russian culture and American life, especially the cosmopolitan, urban variety—and despite the fatalistic worldview of her characters, the author’s belief that miracles do happen provides much humor. A piercing novel about the absurdities of the digital age, Still Here is also the finest kind of comedy of manners, as much a snapshot of how we live now as were the 19th-century novels of Anthony Trollope and George Eliot.
This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of BookPage.