Lara Vapnyar’s Still Here is the story of four people who become friends in Moscow and continue their friendship after immigrating to New York City. Sergey and Vica are married with a child. Regina is married to an American named Bob, a CEO of a tech company. Vadik is single, essentially waiting on Leonard Cohen’s miracle from his favorite song. Their relationships are a bit incestuous, mainly because no one wants to lose face by showing they are mad. Vadik was dating Vica and Sergey was dating Regina, but when Sergey and Vica met in Moscow, it was love at first sight and they both dumped their partners and got married. Pride kept their friendships intact, though there is real affection blended with suspicion, jealousy and regret.
Vadik is the most successful in America, with a good job working for Bob’s tech company. Regina is well-off, but idle, spending her days watching and eating as directed by an app called exactly that. She was a successful literary translator, but lacks the motivation now. Vica is dissatisfied with her life. She worked to support the family while Sergey got his degree. However, the good job that was supposed to support her while she went to med school eluded him as his career stalled, getting laid off and moving progressively down the ladder. Sergey is failing her and she shows it.
All of us who are social media are familiar with the pangs of grief and remembrance that come with the reminders to wish a happy birthday to friends and family who have died. Our daily “Memories to Share” heedlessly remind us of the dead as though they are still living. It is a virtual haunting, uncharted and unaware. But suppose there were an app for that?
Well, there probably is, but Sergey, has an idea that goes beyond some of the existing services that send out virtual death notices and so on. Sergey envisions an application, Virtual Grave, that collects and synthesizes a person’s virtual communications with a linguistic algorithm that creates their virtual voice which loved ones can reach out to for advice, answers as well as likes, comments and tweets. Vica is also excited about Virtual Grave seeing an opportunity to get ahead and achieve her American dream. Regina is irritated that Sergey pitched it to her husband Bob and think the idea is ridiculous. Vadik also thinks the idea is wrong. They all have their own ideas of how our virtual selves should be after death, from complete erasure to carefully curated by the dying to Vadik’s form of immortality. These ideas reflect their own feelings about their own lives.
I enjoyed Still Here, though at times I found each one of them unlikeable. Nonetheless, by the time I finished, I cared about them and their future, wishing them the happiness they are seeking with such mixed success. I want Regina and Bob to celebrate their 50th Anniversary and the same for Sergey and Vica. I want Vadik to be happy once he knows what he needs.
This is a quiet novel about friendship, striving, about being an immigrant and what it means to become an American. They do crazy things like take tennis lessons because that’s what Americans do. There is a self-consciousness that they carry with them. The book is most successful in showing what friendship is like, how it ebbs and flows, how there can be an abiding love and loyalty underneath frustration and anger. In that it is very real.
The characters are complex, with multiple motivations and contradictory ideas. They are inconsistent and occasionally hypocritical, but they are essentially good people whom we come to care for. There is not a lot of action and some of it takes place off screen, so to speak. New York is a stronger, more present setting than Moscow, which feels a bit stale and flat. You probably will not discover the meaning of life in Still Here, but that’s because some of our friends are still looking, and perhaps looking is the real meaning of life.
Still Life will be released August 2nd.
I received a review copy of Still Life from Blogging for Books.