The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

Russian Debutante's HandbookSince my last post, I have attempted reading Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and have utterly failed. I started the book about three months back and cannot seem to get through more than one chapter at a time. Thus far, my posts have remained positive and, well, whole, having finished all that I have set out to read. I have not given up on a book in a long time. Consider this less of a review and more of a harbinger, a warning that sometimes one can go too far down the rabbit hole.

I was first introduced to Shteyngart by FoA’s very own Steve Gerner. I met Steve on Twitter; we were both serving in the Peace Corps, he in South Africa and I in the Philippines. I guess we found each other because we were both working on information technology projects. Anyway, fast forward years later, he’s slinging some amazing looking pies in Arizona and I’m teaching English in Korea. He sent me an ebook, Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.

The novel takes place in the not so distant future and details the romance of a Russian-American Jew and his Korean-American girlfriend. This novel is chalk-full of Korean culture and language and he thought I would have an instant appreciation for it. I don’t think Steve knew that I’m Jewish and that I was dating (and am now engaged to) a Korean. I really loved that book and read it voraciously. It was full of inside jokes, gems of observation of both Jewish and Korean culture.

Having enjoyed Shteyngart’s third and most recent book so much, I decided to go one book earlier, Absurdistan. Absurdistan was also a brilliant book, full of Jewish humor. It was a well-paced novel and it was really fun to read. But this post is not about Absurdistan, no. It’s about The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.

Having read Shteygart’s most recent works, I decided to tackle his first novel and I was all excited to read it. It lacks the very thing  I liked most about his subsequent works: subtlety. Handbook attempts to be clever by dropping names, allusions and pop-cultural references the way the US Air Force firebombed Dresden. It’s exhausting, like sitting down at a cafe with a college freshman and listening to them talk about “the Man” and how Madonna should be credited with inroads into the globalization of Spam or some such nonsense. Following the plot is not worth constantly tripping over Shteygart’s ego.

Giving credit where credit is due, English is not Shteygart’s first language and it was his first novel; I couldn’t do any better.

So I guess this isn’t a review as much as it is a white flag being waved in defeat by a very disappointed fan, hard-earned with Shteygart’s latter two works.

TL;DR Too long, didn’t read.

Total pages: 476 (only read 234)  Total FoA pages: 25,944

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