At various times in Lara Vapnyar's quietly affecting new novel, the title phrase appears: "Still Here." It might be a father sighing during an international phone call, a middle-aged man realizing that women on a dating site are tired of him — or an opportunity for the living to craft their own online presences after death. "Still here" stands for patience or impatience or resignation. But will it also stand for fidelity and trust?
Sergey, one of a quartet of Russian immigrant friends at the heart of this book, has an idea for an app called "Virtual Grave," a method of allowing someone's digital words to speak for them posthumously. Some of his friends think it's genius; some think it's bunk. In the course of figuring out which it is for himself, Sergey will leave his wife, Vica, and their son Eric and move in with his friend Vadik, whose great youthful love Regina is married to Bob, a software developer.
Each friend has his or her own challenges. Vica was en route to medical school in Russia and now hates her work as an ultrasound technician in Manhattan. Vadik feels empty of meaning, and Regina is conflicted about motherhood.
One of them even has to travel back to the Motherland to figure out a solution. The paths to their stories are winding, but Vapnyar's humor and perspective keep the reader rooting for these strangers in a strange land who, despite their travails, are "still here," still Americans, still kicking, screaming and struggling their ways to individuation.
Bethanne Patrick is a writer and book critic in Washington, D.C., and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Lara Vapnyar.
Publisher: Hogarth Press, 310 pages, $26.