Lara Vapnyar’s newest novel, Divide Me By Zero, is a harrowing piece about the structure of love and relationships as they relate to the wants and expectations of our own needs and the system of love built by everyone that has come before us. The structure of the novel is unique, built from small scraps of notes left by the protagonist’s dead mother in hopes that the protagonist (a writer) would assemble them in a cohesive self-help book that melds mathematics with the rules of life every young woman should follow for healthy development in the modern world.
There are a few problems, however. The protagonist and her mother have emigrated from Soviet Russia, so the expectations of healthy relationships (and even the relative availability of chicken thighs and toilet paper) should be taken with a grain of salt. Additionally, the cancer that ravages the mother as we progress through the book seems to affect her concept of what is acceptable and rational. Finally, being in a neglectful marriage with two children isn’t entirely beneficial to a life that has an obsessive old flame bobbing in and out of the narrative as well as a new potential suitor with just under ‘oligarch’ status wealth.
This was a very uniquely structured novel with some beautifully written moments of subtle grace. It was a lot of fun to read, and the eastern-bloc feminist attitude that pervades throughout the narrative was truly a refreshing take on a trope that often neglects the modern beautiful narrative that we have within these pages. I was surprised at how wonderfully fleshed out Vapnyar’s characters were, and how easily the prose carried their narrative through soviet Russia, the education system, and in through the Reagan-era united states through to today in so few pages. Honestly, it was a beautiful piece, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Anyone with an affection toward modern literary fiction will find this piece captivating, especially since the format allows for new, whimsical experimental subtlety that Vapnyar teases us with throughout the book.
Overall, a great read with a fresh perspective about love, death, loss, motherhood, and the immigrant experience.