In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook the story follows Vladimir Girshkin, the only son of Russian immigrants, as he navigates life in New York City. Having moved from Leningrad/St. Petersburg at the age of twelve, Vladimir has romanticized life in eastern Europe and is trying to balance his heritage with the culture of the United States. When the novel begins, Vladimir is twenty-five, living in New York after graduating from an expensive, Midwestern, liberal arts college, and is working in the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society (picture Ugly Americans minus the creatures). In his quest for money and status (themes Shteyngart seems especially drawn to) Vladimir gets involved with a psychotic client, delves into organized crime, and finds himself in Prava (the Paris of the 90’s), deceiving and defrauding Western expats all in the name of capitalism.
There are funny characters, and humorous moments, but the novel is repetitive, and weighed down by a lack of vision. Part way through, it seemed as though Shteyngart had no clear idea where the novel was headed. Transitions are jerky, and sections don’t always fit together well. Moreover, the repetition of Vladimir’s low self-esteem and deceptions becomes increasingly annoying.
Another problem I have with this book, and perhaps with Shteyngart’s writing, is that Vladimir Gershkin is so similar to Lenny Abramov from Super Sad True Love Story. Both characters are Russian immigrants who are overly nostalgic, obsessed with money and status, suffer from low self-esteem, have poor luck with women, are intelligent but unmotivated, balding, hairy, and describe things in similar ways. Essentially, Shteyngart lifted Vladimir Gershkin, made a few modifications and placed him in a distopian future under the name of Lenny Abramov in Super Sad True Love Story. Lenny hit the point of being annoying in that novel, and reading another incarnation of Lenny is too much.
While there were parts of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook I enjoyed, I started skimming after 200 pages. My urge to see what happened outweighed the problems I had with the writing. Shteyngart is a talented writer, but needs to look beyond himself for a subject. If you’re interested in his writing, I recommend Super Sad True Love Story as it is more focused and sharper.