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The Russian Debutante's Handbook

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3.5 of 5 stars 3.50  ·  rating details  ·  5,308 ratings  ·  605 reviews
TheRussian Debutante's Handbook introduces Vladimir Girshkin, one of the most original and unlikely heroes of recent times. The twenty-five-year-old unhappy lover to a fat dungeon mistress, affectionately nicknamed "Little Failure" by his high-achieving mother, Vladimir toils his days away as a lowly clerk at the bureaucratic Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society. When ...more
Paperback, 476 pages
Published April 29th 2002 by Riverhead Trade
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Love Is Never Past Tense... by Janna YeshanovaLove Is Never Past Tense... by Janna YeshanovaLove Is Never Past Tense... by Janna YeshanovaThe Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary ShteyngartAbsurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
Ex-Soviet Immigrant Fiction
4th out of 33 books — 45 voters
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott LynchThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott FitzgeraldThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainThe Odyssey by HomerRed Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
Con Men, Gamblers and Hustlers
90th out of 197 books — 86 voters


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Community Reviews

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Karen
I loved the language in this book - the weird, fresh phrases and the author's obvious fascination with English words, their sound and their usage. This seems to be a common thread in books by smart Russian/Eastern European men writing in English, though I haven't read enough of these authors to make a reliable generalization. The language was enough to carry me pretty far, but I felt that there wasn't much more to this book than that. The beginning was excellent - when Vladimir is working at a c ...more
Antof9
From the back of the book:

"Breezily hilarious."
-New York Magazine
"Blisteringly funny."
-Salon.com
"Remarkable."
-New York Observer
"As funny and wicked as Waugh."
-Time
"Brilliant."
-Harper's Bazaar
"Terrifically charming."
-Vanity Fair
"A wholly original delight."
-Entertainment Weekly
"Energetic, sparkling."
-Los Angeles Times
"Not to be missed."
-The Wall Street Journal

Really? Seriously? Is it possible that this book is the author's own Cagliostro? Is it possible that all the lovers of this book (it won the
...more
Eveline Chao
this was awesome and clever and hilarious. i described it to someone as hipster nabokov, which might sound off-putting, & there are parts that are SO clever and witty and hip that it verges close to making you start to hate it for its cleverness, but in the end it managed to keep me on its side.

it was also witty enough to make me do really dorky things like transcribe a couple lines i liked. here they be:

"Real humor is not supposed to be funny," Baobab said. "It's supposed to be tragic, lik
...more
Mark
This book was a hoot. Shteyngart has a wonderful sense of the absurd, and his penchant for eccentric characters is the main selling point of this romp in New York and an Eastern European city that has all the chaotic vibrancy and despair of any city emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. Well worth it.
Jim
The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart is a humorous fantasy about a Russian immigrant who is trying to find himself, and usually finds himself in hot water. The hero/narrator is one Vladimir Girshkin, who finds himself in a dead-end job and an unsatisfying relationship. He dreams for something better, but the advice of his friends leads him, on one hand, to Florida, where he infuriates a Catalan mobster by refusing to be his catamite. Then -- on the advice of a highly suspect Russi ...more
Judy
I read Gary Shteyngart's debut novel at fever pitch because I started it late for a reading group discussion. Fever pitch was the correct approach; it matches the pace of the story.

In the grand tradition of immigrant novels, Vladimir Girshkin is a young man of Russian descent adrift in a sea of confusion. He works at an immigrant resettlement agency in New York City, making non-profit wages. His girlfriend is a dominatrix by night, his father is an MC who scams Medicare, and his mother-well I ne
...more
Rebecca
I feel like I've been reading a different book toeveryone else?! 'Satire of hipsters'?- maybe for about 10 pages, the rest just descended into the "comic" failures of Vladimir in the crime world... I was literally forcing myself to read up to certain pages, so in the end I quit.

To be honest, I was turned off from the very first nine pages which were full of people saying how good the book was. If the book is so good, why does it need that? Very suspicious...

I'm so disappointed, I have been want
...more
shiv
i found this tome to be fun...but vladimir girshkin is so unsympathetic a character, i found it difficult to really enjoy. i get the feeling that i'm supposed to see him as a farce, or a transatlantic everyman who happens to have amazing adventures...mostly i just see him as shallow and afraid. i particularly loathe the judgmental inner monologues, wherein he weighs people's coolness quotients by just how high they rank on the douchebag scale.

i know it's supposed to be satire; i've just met too
...more
Corey
I found a dusty copy of this book lying unattended to on my mother's bookshelf, sandwiched between Updike and Dickens, believe it or not. I believe what drew me in was a blurb on the back comparing Shtyngart to Saul Below.

Indeed, the plot is analogous to The Adventures of Augie March (and in fact, I think there are a couple of allusions to that great novel in Shtyngart's novel), but if you go into this one looking for something akin to the beauty and flawlessness of Bellow's prose, you'll be dis
...more
Jordan
"A knowledgeable Russian lazing around in the grass, sniffing clover and munching on boysenberries, expects that at any minute the forces of history will drop by and discreetly kick him in the ass.
A knowledgeable Jew in a similar position expects history to spare any pretense and kick him directly in the face.
A Russian Jew (knowledgeable or not), however, expects both history and a Russian to kick him in the ass, the face, and every other place where a kick can be reasonably lodged. Vladimir u
...more
Octo
Hmm... I think I might have enjoyed this book far less had I not been thrown into the (former) U.S.S.R. born immigrant community in Chicago for the brief period of time that I was.

This book deals with all that interests me so much in that community - the courage to immigrate in the first place, the idealized American dream, the social disconnect that exists once immigrants arrive, the longing for for home, the misunderstanding of america, and the ultimate american question - what do you do when
...more
Julie
Four and a half stars.
Highly funny, and as for the audiobook, Rider Strong (which is an awesome name) read it really well.
In a part where they hire some DJ for their new super-pretentious dance club where horse tranquilizers are the new cocaine, as he is getting off the plane he yells, "MC Paavo in de haus!! In de pan-European 'hood! Got de Helsinki beat y'all can't fuck wif!"
His accent was so hilarious that I kept rewinding to hear it again.
I want to make it my new ring tone.

Katrin
Sep 20, 2007 Katrin rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Most, especially ex-pats
As a former expatriate myself, I found this book to be comforting both in content and style. Being displaced in a foreign country is very amusing after the initial shock and confusion, the new country's idiosynchrasies clashing with your own. The reverse culture shock in coming back to the U.S. after being an expat in Europe is even more interesting than the original displacement, and this is observed and described in great detail and aptitude.
Hudson
I bought this for 25 cents at a yard sale, and what a score that was... Steyngart’s humor bubbles up naturally from the ground, only fully carbonated and lime-flavored... I’ve seldom read a novel that gets underway so fast. He hits you right away with a barrage of breezy, antic, cutting observations, all cleverly slotted within a breakneck plot. (For relief from the pace, the narrator has a wistful and weary side; and there's an undercurrent of geopolitical awareness to also help temper the hype ...more
Moses Kilolo
Somewhere in the middle of this book I wanted to hate it. For reasons unrelated to the book. Or the authorial style. Or the story. I just fell sick. Deep into the night, while the world around me was quietly asleep, I walked in and out of my room. It's 3. Now its 4. And shall it be 6 or 7 when the light is adequate. When Nairobi rises from its slumber. This pain. So terrible. (Perhaps I shouldn't say where, in my mortal body, the pain racked,scaring the shit off me. Easy to loose your body. Don' ...more
Withanhauser
I had pretty high expectations going into reading The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. I read Super Sad True Love Story over the summer, and thought that Shteyngart’s writing in it was witty and direct, and his character development deeply humanizing. Lenny Abramov, the protagonist of Super Sad True Love Story, expresses his feelings so strongly and outwardly that it’s hard not to sympathize and identify with him. If Shteygart’s writing style were to be relatively constant between books then The Ru ...more
E
My ultimate credo: A story becomes literature when it transcends its genre. When it can seduce almost any reader, regardless of its plot, because the characters are so well crafted, the writing is seamlessly poetic, and nimble comedy keeps any tragedy from taking itself too seriously. Shteyngart's novel exceeds these expectations, having entranced a reader who previously found every mafia tale she'd ever encountered supremely nauseating. While a few classic features of mobster fiction can be fou ...more
Janice
IF YOU'RE GOING TO WRITE ABOUT PRAGUE, WRITE ABOUT PRAGUE! don't change a few letters, change a few names, turn alfonse mucha into someone else, but continue to refer to kafka as if you're forgetting this is supposed to be an imaginary place. what is this, CRACKED magazine? yes, i said CRACKED. not even MAD material, here.

i wouldn't mind this annoyance if the book hadn't made me crazy in other ways. i can't stop reading a book if i'm far enough in, and unfortunately i didn't realize i hated this
...more
Tuckova
I feel like I went on a date with this guy that everybody said I would totally love, and I don't want to be rude or anything but I'm really having a not-fun evening with him, I don't get the appeal, he seems like pretty much every other self-absorbed type telling his long long and not very interesting story (OH DOES YOUR MOTHER EXPECT TOO MUCH SUCCESS FROM YOU HOW SPECIAL AND UNIQUE TELL ME MORE), and I realized around page 250 out of 400 or so that as the book is not a human being it is not at ...more
Sarah
I'm currently reading this and laughing out loud every ten minutes and wishing I could write dialog like this. But I can't.

Okay - I finished it and loved it... but like many a debut novel, it petered out at the end. It's like - I"m not sure how to end this thing so I'll throw every idea I have out there. The scenes with whipping the Groundhog in the Banya made me laugh and laugh and I have to sadly admit, I saw some of my self in the pretentious Americans hanging around in Prava. Would that I c
...more
Emily
Nov 10, 2009 Emily rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2003
The book I read last week was first-time novelist Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook, which my father purchased for me presumably because the back of the cover says it's "as deadpan and funny as the young Evelyn Waugh" and that "Shteyngart has given us a literary symbol for this new immigrant age, much as Saul Bellow or Henry Roth did in theirs." Luckily, these pronouncements are true. You can hear Bellow in sentences like, "She turned away from him, and he was left to stare into ...more
Laurel Zuckerman
After one false start and a cooling off period of several months, I delved into Shteyngart's novel a second time and, to my amazement, found it hilarious. He is a great satirist, the little Russian, but you don't want to be on the receiving end of his kind attentions. When he draws a bead on the education dispensed at the $25,000 progressive mid-western universities and the sanitized international middle class, he is, unfortunately, not entirely unfair. His narrator, a verbally adroit, arrogant ...more
Jaclyn Cannon
I rarely stop reading books, because I need the closure. I think we need to have a rating for books like we have for movies- PG 13 for some violence, sexual innuendos, etc R for R-rated scenes. This book would be R-rated. I did not even get to half the book. I started reading it since it was a 'national best seller' and a 'new york times' book, 'winner of the stephen crane fiction award', 'washington post book owrld best book of the year', 'an american library assoication notable book', one of t ...more
Josh
Ten years after its publication, I wonder if any of the critics who breathed hot steam all over The Russian Debutante's Handbook now have morning-after second thoughts. Because I don't see where Shteyngart's first novel "tops Saul Bellow's for bounce and Philip Roth's for wit." Not even close.

Granted, it's got all the properties of hot-commodity literary fiction. It's tidily crafted and smoothly written, an easy read and occasionally clever. It delivers chuckles but not a single revelation. Ther
...more
Margot
I may have enjoyed this one more if I had read it first out of Gary Shteyngart's novels. As his first novel, he's working on perfecting his standard plot and characters: an awkward, nerdy, slightly unattractive thirty-something Eastern European immigrant man going after an appealing, yet damaged woman who's out of his league, and works for a large, "evil" corporation abroad (preferably in an unstable former Soviet region) to gain power and respect. Write what you know, eh? I would suggest skippi ...more
Tim Lepczyk
Gary Shteyngart revels in the absurd. Whether it is in Super Sad True Love Story , or, in this case, The Russian Debutante's Handbook , Shteyngart has an eye for the ridiculous.

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 hasromanticizedlife in eastern Europe and is trying to balance his heritage with the culture of the
...more
K
The title alone sparked my curiosity, but this book was also excerpted and strongly recommended in "Reading Like a Writer" as an example of great writing. And rightly so. I'm amazed at the way every word seems well-chosen, and by the fact that a book with such high-quality writing manages to be hysterically funny rather than stuffy and serious. The descriptions of Russian immigrants are so hysterical that I remembered some lines when I was running on the treadmill and started cracking up! People ...more
Rachel
Jul 30, 2008 Rachel rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who like action-comedy-romance movies
So I finished this last week and I'm still trying to decide how I feel about it. While I really liked the style (like a slightly more outre and hipster version of "Everything is Illuminated" without Safran Foer's gift for the sublimely fantastical) and the characters (there are especially some very interesting women in this book, from the chubby dominatrix to the impressive Russian mother to the revolutionary corn-fed American abroad), the actual storyline was just too madcap for me. I didn't ma ...more
Jennie
Shteyngart is a tricky bastard. It's like he's hugging you with one arm while pushing you away with the other. His protagonists are just relatable enough that you can see yourself in them, but unappealing enough that you wish you didn't. His plots are engaging enough to hold your interest but implausible enough to perplex you. He sense of humor makes you smirk and grimace at the same time. You keep rooting for a happy ending, even though you're pretty sure nobody deserves it. Every book he write ...more
Robin
This took me entirely too long to read, which I should have taken as a sign early on that I wasn't captivated by it and thus should put it down. That's a harsh review, though, because I actually didn't entirely dislike The Russian Debutante's Handbook...but I guess I wasn't in the mood for the lazy-first-generation-immigrant-whose-parents-support-him-and-he-tries-to-take-the-easy-way-out-by-joining-the-mob-and-dates-lame-American-girls-along-the-way story. Definitely remember liking Shteyngart's ...more
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Gary Shteyngart is an American writer born in Leningrad, USSR (he alternately calls it "St. Leningrad" or "St. Leninsburg"). Much of his work is satirical and relies on the invention of elaborately fictitious yet somehow familiar places and times.

His first novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook (2002), received the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award.
More about Gary Shteyngart...
Super Sad True Love Story Absurdistan Little Failure Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story: Two Bestselling Novels A Hero of Our Time

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“This would be the worst birthday of his life. Vladimir's best friend Baobab was down in Florida covering his rent, doing unspeakable things with unmentionable people. Mother, roused by the meager achievements of Vladimir's first quarter-century, was officially on the warpath. And, in possibly the worst development yet, 1993 was the Year of the Girlfriend. A downcast, heavyset American girlfriend whose bright orange hair was strewn across his Alphabet City hovel as if cadre of Angora rabbits had visited. A girlfriend whose sickly-sweet incense and musky perfume coated Vladimir's unwashed skin, perhaps to remind him of what he could expect on this, the night of his birthday: Sex. Every week, once a week, they had to have sex, as both he and this large pale woman, this Challah, perceived that without weekly sex their relationship would fold up according to some unspecified law of relationships.” 4 likes
“I prepared for my meal in the usual fashion: fork in my left hand; my dominant right clenched into a fist on my lap, ready to punch anyone who dared take away my food.” 3 likes
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