bookrev: Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

4 stars: Good characters and humor, plot that bogs down in the end

The characterization of Vladimir Girshkin is excellent, from how he looks and dresses (which morphs through the book), to how he thinks about himself, his family, his ethniticity, to how he perceives the other Russians and Americans around him. Many humoristic moments as Vladimir, in an effort to get himself out of a dead-end life, gets in with deeper and crazier schemes to extract money and respect from different criminal elements, all the while building (or rebuilding?) the ego inside the man. The characterization, as a trip of self-discovery, is very well written.

But I did find myself forcing to finish. I did end up caring about the characters, esp. Vladimir and Morgan in the end, so I pushed on wanting to see what happened to them. But the plot bogged down, taking turns that made the humourously ludicrous ones in the beginning of the story seem normal. You have to suspend your reality checks for a novel like this, but it just got harder to do toward the end. The clever literary references and play on words at the later half of the novel didn’t make me chuckle or think as much as the ones in the beginning.

I will read Mr. Shtenyngart’s next novel with anticipation. Writing any novel is hard work, and I’m glad Gary pressed on with number 2.

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