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A Replacement Life

3.47  ·  Rating details ·  1,356 ratings  ·  213 reviews
A singularly talented writer makes his literary debut with this provocative, soulful, and sometimes hilarious story of a failed journalist asked to do the unthinkable: Forge Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, New York.

Yevgeny Gelman, grandfather of Slava Gelman, "didn't suffer in the exact way" he needs to have suffered to qualify for the restit
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published June 3rd 2014 by Harper (first published June 1st 2014)
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Jul 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014
Slava Gelman is a junior staffer at a magazine that isn't but might as well be The New Yorker, where his assignment is to ferret out and crack wise about absurd news items in small-town newspapers. Slava lives on the Upper East Side, which isn't but might as well be on the other side of the world from "Soviet Brooklyn" where he landed as a child on arrival from Minsk (as did Fishman), where his grandparents still live and which his parents fled for suburban New Jersey. When Slava's grandmother d ...more
Jun 08, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2014, arc
I discovered two important items while reading this book: 1-Boris Fishman is an extremely gifted writer. 2-I am not a fan of dark comedy.

Fishman is on par with Gary Shteyngart. Both create energetic and diverse characters. Blending humor with serious subject matter isn't easy, yet these two authors have no issues in making the task a success.

Fishman's debut is character driven. He assembled quite a vibrant and exciting cast from varying circumstances. The protagonists range from cantankerous,
Jul 06, 2014 added it
Very impressive debut novel. People have been comparing this book to Gary Shteyngart's novels, but that isn't right. Fishman and Shteyngart are both Soviet-Jewish immigrants, yes, but they are completely different writers. Shteyngart is about the raw comedy of the id; Fishman is much more controlled and analytical. Here, we get a close third person account of a young immigrant shlemiel who gets roped by his grandfather into writing false accounts of his grandfather's friends' WWII years in a sca ...more
Jun 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book was a unique read. Yes, it has many of the same ingredients of other recent novels: set in NYC, set in the crazy world of magazine publishing, young single 20-something year old characters looking for themselves and reconciling their desires with family expectations. What makes A Replacement Life different is the cast of characters. Characters that span Manhattan elite to Russian immigrants who make their money selling burial plots to fellow immigrants. A Replacement Life is a study on ...more
Oct 31, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
"You do not notice exactly when day becomes night, but you notice night."

I've been having trouble finishing books; I get bogged down in the middle and can't make it out or through to the end. But I read this without stopping, if slowly--a tribute to the story and the prose.

And Fishman's story is a tribute to our grandparents (or great-grandparents, in my case), who left their homes, which they knew and were attached to (no matter that their survival depended upon going, that it was the wisest an
Dianna Linder
Aug 16, 2014 rated it it was ok
I really wanted to like and admire this book. I think about the tremendous physical and emotional effort the author spent. Years of research? Did he do this at night and on weekends, forsaking his family and community obligations? Or did he quit work and live as a pauper to produce his debut work?

The book has an enticing premise. There is restitution money available for holocaust survivors, but only for a certain kind of survivor: those with the right backstory. Slava, a young magazine writer, i
Jul 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is a gorgeous debut from one of the most compelling storytellers since Michael Chabon. This book is about everything--life, love, identity, culture, morality, and more.

It is one of the most emotionally compelling and satisfying books I've ever read. There is a richness and a tenderness and a wit to his writing style that is undeniable and irresistible.

"A Replacement Life" is a knockout.

I recall one reviewer saying the first 35 pages dragged on for him. I had quite the opposite experience
Lisa Guidarini
Nov 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
[ARC via Amazon Vine program]

Slava Gelman is a young writer trying to get a foothold on the slippery slope from low-ranking nobody to published writer, with a byline in Century, a high-profile magazine where he works. So far achieving little respect, his ideas largely overlooked, he’s mired in frustration. If he’s to succeed, he believes he needs to break free of his barely off the boat Russian family, moving forward into modern-day Manhattan and the new lifestyle he yearns to emulate.

Upon the d
Apr 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: jewish, contemporary
Read my review on New York Journal of Books. Read that review first. Additional remarks that appeared in a different and now defunct publication begin with the next paragraph.

Meet Boris Fishman the newest star novelist of the Little Odessa Renaissance

With the publication this week of his debut novel A Replacement Life by New York based publisher HarperCollins Boris Fishman joins the ranks of fellow writers of The Little Odessa Renaissance who immigrated from the Soviet Union to The United States
Kseniya Melnik
I loved this book. I often judge my love for books by the frequency I stop reading and stare into space in reflection and awe. I won't summarize the plot of the book as both the publisher's note and others' reviews have done it well enough. Here are a few things that I've been struck and touched by. Despite all the machination and moral juggling, I found the character of the grandfather extremely sympathetic and even tragic. He's a bit like an aged Ostap Bender from Ilf and Petrov's classic "The ...more
Feb 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Tender, sweet, funny and heart wrenching. This is a story of a young man, Slava, caught between his Russian Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn and his desire to assimilate into American culture. Boris Fishman is a master when it comes to writing about the Russian Jewish community. "Your grandmother isn't, she said. She burst into tears. Isn't. Verbiage was missing. In Russian you didn't need the adjective to complete the sentence, but in English you did. In English she could still be alive". An ...more
Dec 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
I really liked this book. It was almost Shteyngart-ian, if that's a real thing that I didn't just make up. The story centers around a Russian immigrant in New York working at a renown literary magazine confronting the past of his grandparents and the past of history. The narrator skillfully walks between the Eastern European dialects of Brooklyn and the pre-hipster literati of Manhattan.

"Like a Soviet high-rise, each floor of Berta was stuffed beyond capacity. SIlver polish gleamed from her toe,
Aug 02, 2015 rated it liked it
3.0- 3.5 stars

I liked this book-it is as a bit hard to follow at first but the plot & characters picked up. Holocaust survivors both real and contrived seeking reparations from the German government ? A tongue-in-cheek dark comedy? You betcha!

The characters are well developed, their personalities, thoughts, guilt, hopes and conflicts. Slava Geldman works for a publisher & is not a particularly happy person. His hilarious grandfather ropes him in to writing contrived histories for himself and oth
Feb 14, 2014 rated it liked it
Around the time of his grandmother’s death, Slava Gelman’s grandparents received a letter from an agency in Germany that is paying reparations to people who were incarcerated in concentration camps, ghettos, and forced labor battalions. The whole family knows that Mrs. Gelman lived in the Minsk Ghetto, but they don’t know much more than that. She never spoke of it. But her husband, Yevgeny, decides that Slava can write back to this agency claiming that he (Yevgeny) was in the ghetto. Yevgeny suf ...more
Susan Sherwin
Aug 20, 2014 rated it liked it
While I had a bit of a hard time reading the broken English, I basically liked this novel because the situations and characters felt real. At the request of his aging manipulative Russian Jewish grandfather, Slava, a struggling writer for a magazine, gets roped into writing letters for the applications of immigrants from the USSR seeking reparations from Germany for their suffering during WWII. The thing is that many of them didn't exactly have the experiences that Slava invents.

The fine shades
Abby Cember
Jun 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is awesome. I bought it on Thursday, had it finished by Monday night--which for me, means I was addicted. Of course, it helps that the main character was a 25-year-old Russian Jewish writer with whom I became, for a few days, obsessed. The writing is tremendous, the pathos is compelling; I would have given five stars, except I tend to reserve that rating for things a bit heavier in philosophy. Anyone who speaks Russian will delights in the morsels of that tongue that are thrown in. Thi ...more
Vanessa Blakeslee
Nov 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
A very fine debut, rife with compassion and dark humor. To me it's evident how much hard work Fishman put into it, that the book is so structurally sound and has some truly memorable great flashing lines, a most crucial facet of literature. I love that it has these meta- themes, of the stories-within-the-story, the blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction, with a heartfelt depth via Slava, the protagonist. I highly enjoyed the entire trajectory of the Arianna relationship, and how Slava's ha ...more
Cynthia Paschen
Sep 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-group
"The letter, this new life, had taken all of forty-five minutes. What the Nazis took away, Slava restored. He carried numbers on a pad of paper: Doing this for every person they killed would take 513 years without stopping. Reading over the letter, he felt satisfaction mixed with unease. On the page, it was Grandmother but also not-Grandmother. He couldn't say why, despite rereading the letter several times. Finally, he gave up, double-checked that it included no references to the applicant's ge ...more
Apr 03, 2014 rated it liked it
Well written and quite funny for a novel about Holocaust reparations, this didn't quite work for me. I didn't find the story that compelling and there is a sameness to this kind of male, Jewish, Russian emigre, literary, Brooklynvs Manhattan, sex-obsessed voice.

The more I think about it, the more I think the novel was a bit too baggy and the interesting bits get lost in the ruminating. Maybe a little too fond of itself. Another instance of less would be more.
Sep 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Great book with some very thought provoking themes about the grey line between truth and fiction when faced with moral dilemma. I thought there could have been some better character development of Arianna and Vera as juxtaposed love interests. I also enjoyed background info on the people Slava helped and felt like it was often cut off too quickly. I found some parts a quick flow and very engaging while others slower and tangential. Overall an enjoyable read.
Jun 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
Anyone ever read David Sedaris' article about visiting the Anne Frank house and coming to the realization that it was prime real estate? Edgy article - almost over the edge of good taste. But not quite. ...more
Jul 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
I found the beginning of this book (maybe first 50 pages) to be a little slow but when it picked up I really loved it. Slava is flawed for sure, but lovable and the remaining cast of characters made for some good laughs. Very well done.
Jun 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Wow. This is great. Boris Fishman has nailed it with this, his first novel. Smart, incisive, and funny. Love it.
Aug 01, 2014 rated it did not like it
Didn't like story...didn't like writing...didn't care about any of the characters ...more
Carol Felstein
Jul 28, 2015 rated it liked it
Good writing, but somehow too cerebral and not affecting. And this from someone who knows South Brooklyn and knows many Russian immigrants (my summer community.)
Mar 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Most of all, I think A Replacement Life earns the classification “literary” because at those very moments when so many novels approach real emotion and then flinch away and hide behind a mask of irony and jest--when they flirt with a deep question only to then crack a witty joke and nothing more--this book continues on into gravitas. Instead of just the protagonist’s “inappropriate” reactions at a funeral, which does give us good humor, we also have the Minsk narratives and the Q&A with the dead ...more
Feb 18, 2014 added it
Shelves: work, fiction
My review in Haaretz

Slava Gelman’s greatest misfortune, one might surmise, was to have been born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. His family migrated from Minsk, in Soviet Belarus, to the United States when he was a child; old enough to remember the old country, he was yet young enough – fool enough, perhaps – to believe he could escape its baleful influence on his life.

Fat chance. Like it or not, he was trapped between two worlds. He could only e
Sep 11, 2014 rated it liked it
Full review at:

Boris Fishman’s debut novel, A Replacement Life, is about a young Russian emigre named Slava who is stuck between two worlds. Slava’s grandparents live in Brooklyn, where they still speak Russian and hang out with people from the Old Country. His parents have moved to New Jersey. Slava, meanwhile, lives in Manhattan and slaves away as an overworked researcher at an august magazine that sounds a lot like The New Yorker. He refuses to return
Apr 25, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fishman was born in Belarus in the former USSR and came to the USA aged nine where his family settled in “Soviet Brooklyn” where the migrants were “speaking Russian, hating Russians” as they were “stuck forever in Soviet times”. He dedicates this very entertaining first novel to “the walking wounded who survived the degradations of a life in the Soviet Union”. He skips the usual growing up in another culture first novel to focus on the comedy of a young writer working for a magazine and trying t ...more
Feb 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017
I'm rounding up to 4/5 for a book that I considered a solid 3.5. I am assuming that if I had understood all of the cultural references a soviet immigrant would have understood, it would have bumped this up to a 4.

As others have noted, this is a character-driven book. I had to push myself to read some of the chapters that seemed to exist only add more detail to Slava, but I'm not confident that they did that. The plot is actually interesting, as is its resolution, but those This Is Slava chapter
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“Tell me about the war,” he pressed cautiously. She smiled again and began, “Well . . .” The sentence ended there. Her tongue moved but no words emerged. He wanted to say, Tell me because I’d like to tell my grandchildren one day. Tell me because it happened to you, and so I should know. Tell me because it will bring me closer to you, and I want to be close to you. But he was fifteen years old, and he didn’t know how to express thoughts like these. He only knew that he wanted to know. He could tell that she would tell him anything but anything, only if he could stand it please don’t make her talk about that. And though he grasped how important it was for him to know— even if everyone in the family had acquiesced not to trouble Grandmother about it— he couldn’t bring himself to make her. So he said to her: “Forget about the war. Tell me about how you and Grandfather fell in love.” 6 likes
“No one was dead, but her son would not call just to call. She’d had to enter intimate terms with this new understanding in her life, like an illness.” 4 likes
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