Professor Lara Vapnyar Solves an Unfinished Equation with Laughter and Angst in Latest Book

BY Rochelle Goldstein, October 24, 2019

“Witty and honest and unflinchingly unsentimental,” is the verdict of the Kirkus Reviews of Adjunct Assistant Professor Lara Vapnyar's book, Divide Me By Zero, published October 15.“It’s almost impossible to put the book down without devouring it in one sitting.”


This enthusiastic judgement was shared by a New York Times reviewer who called the work a “brutally sad romantic comedy,” which, at the same time, is “deeply affecting but playful.” Tin House called the book an “unabashedly frank and darkly comic tale,” that is “a stylistically original, genre-defying mix.”


Vapynar herself described her novel as “part comedy, part Russian novel, part Soviet math textbook and part American self-help manual.” She considers this her “most intimate, the most honest, the most difficult” of all her six books, calling it her “best.”


At the center of Divide Me by Zero is the subject of math, but there is nothing dry or text bookish in the author’s spirited and ingenious treatment. The math is represented by the mother of Katya, the heroine. Katya, a college professor at a major New York university, emigrated with her family from Soviet-era Russia, settling in New York. A well known math educator in her homeland, Katya’s mother is now dying of cancer, and leaves behind an unfinished textbook, a work with larger philosophical overtones for her daughter.


Beyond her deep grief over her mother’s illness and eventual death, Katya, who is approaching forty is deep into a midlife crisis: she is in the middle of a divorce; has lost the love of her life; and is still uneasily adjusting to her new homeland, while wistfully drawn to memories of her Soviet childhood.  Her mother had taught Katya that math was the answer to everything, and the heroine turns to her mother’s unfinished textbook for help. 


Katya is a woman “haunted by a question: how to parse her wild unfathomable passions through the cool logic of mathematics,” one Tin House reviewer wrote. For the Times, the book is “a mordant tribute to lost loves, none more beloved or irretrievably lost as Katya’s mother.”


While not directly autobiographical, Vapnyar admits there are parallels to her own life. Her mother was a well-known mathematics educator in Russia, who was passionate about the beauty of math and its larger implications. Vapnyar, like Katya, has children and is divorced, a college professor at a major New York university—Columbia—and a Russian émigré who remains drawn to the land of her childhood. 


She is now very successful but had a rocky start in America. She came here at 22 in 1994, with minimal English and few job prospects, but her career trajectory has been remarkable. A Guggenheim recipient, an author recognized for her unique voice and perspective as a Russian in America, Vapnyar has emphasized that writing has been a lifeline, her primary means of establishing an identity in her “adopted homeland.”


Divide Me By Zero can be purchased online by it's publisher Tin House.