Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman: I liked this one!

Harper, 2014
336 p.

ARC from the publisher, thank you!

So, I went to get publisher info (ISBN, # of pages, etc) from Amazon and I must say that I was floored by the negative reviews of this book.  In my opinion, they are largely uncalled for, but hey - chacun à son goût, as they say.  Personally, I had a great time with this novel and have already recommended it to a number of people; I've also put it on the list for  my book group to read in September when we return from our summer hiatus.  Obviously, I liked it.

Slava Gelman comes from a family of Russian immigrants who had settled  in Brooklyn.  He'd made a conscious decision to "become an American," to leave his grandfather Yevgeny's  "neighborhood of Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians and Uzbeks"  and set his sights on working for  Century, a longstanding and prestigious magazine, "older than The New Yorker and, despite a recent decline, forever a paragon."   Staying in the neighborhood would keep him among the ranks of those who   ". . . don't go to America," except for the DMV and Brodvei," or who "shop at marts that sold birch-leafed switches"  to "whip yourself in the steam bath and rare Turkish shampoos that reversed baldness . . ."  but this is not what Slava wants. He had to leave, in order to
"strip from his writing the pollution that repossessed it every time he returned to the swamp broth of Soviet Brooklyn."
In short, to focus on his writing for Century, he had to get away, to "Dialyze himself, like Grandmother's kidneys."  So it's off to Manhattan and a sparsely-furnished, affordable studio apartment.  As he's about to find out, getting away is not so easy.

from NY Daily News

As the novel opens, it's July, 2006, and just after 5 am, Slava  is surprised by the ringing of the telephone.  It's not  because it's so early, but rather because no one ever calls him, not even his family, since he'd "forbidden" them to call. He doesn't answer it, but the second time it rings, it's his mother telling him that his "grandmother isn't."   She'd died alone in the care facility.  He hadn't seen Grandmother Sofia for about a month, and now she's gone, and as his mother puts it, it's the family's "first American death."  After the funeral, Yevgeny asks him to write a narrative that would allow him to collect reparations as a victim of the Holocaust. He hands Slava an envelope, addressed to Sofia who was registered at  Yad Vashem  in Jerusalem. When Slava notes that this was for his grandmother, not his grandfather, his grandfather tells him to make it up.  As he states,
"Maybe I didn't suffer in the exact way I need to have suffered ... but they made sure to kill all the people who did. "
Eventually giving in, Slava starts thinking about all of the things that his grandparents  never told him, and how he really knew nothing about his grandmother's life and all she'd gone through.  What little he does know goes into Yevgeny's narrative, and the rest he invents but makes fit the story.  His work is so good that word spreads, and Yevgeny pimps him out to write other narratives for friends.   Each one builds a little more on the made-up, missing details of Sofia's life, and Slava begins to find it easier to lie, to fabricate, to make stuff up.  He gets so good at it that he even starts doing it at his job at Century  -- and it also spills over into other parts of his life as well.  However, writing these narratives produces more than just a few unintended results for Slava that he never could have predicted.

A Replacement Life is a book that shows, in part,  that life can't  always be measured in terms of absolute principles of black and white, true or false, good or bad. It's also a story about family relationships and cultural ties, history, and the Holocaust. To his credit, while the Holocaust is a very large part of this story and while Slava writes of terrible things that happened then in his reparations narratives, for the most part Mr. Fishman keeps the terrors in check so that they don't take over the modern-day story.  There are also a number of comical set pieces in A Replacement Life that made me laugh out loud,  especially when it came to the older folk in this book and the insider look at the Russian-Jewish  immigrant culture. As far as the reparations fraud angle, Mr. Fishman knows of which he speaks: I looked this up and discovered that last year, judgments had come down in a real fraud case that netted the perpetrators around 57 million dollars.

One of the most common themes in the less than complimentary reviews is Mr. Fishman's writing style. I don't understand why -- even in my own casual reader sort of way, I found it very easy to read in terms of writing and style, and I easily picked up on a number of literary references here.   Mr. Fishman obviously enjoys playing with language and playing with other writers' words and ideas and in doing so, has created something very different.   Considering that this is his first novel, I think he's done a fantastic job. This is a book I can definitely recommend.

My thanks once again to the publishers, and to TLC book tours for including me!


  1. Great review! I reviewed it earlier this week for TLC Book Tours -- I loved the book! I rarely pay attention to Amazon reviews. Most of the time I wonder if I read the same book.

    1. Thanks! I'm rarely a follower of Amazon reviews in determining what I should read, but I was just floored by the negativity.

  2. I'm so glad that you enjoyed this book! It sounds like quite a unique read.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

    1. Actually, thank you for including me on the tour!


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.