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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Katania" by Lara Vapnyar

Part III in my "Review-a-Day" Series as I attempt to get caught up on my New Yorker short fiction reviewing. I'm sticking to my work...

Issue: Oct. 14, 2013

Story: Katania

Author: Lara Vapnyar

Plot: A young girl, Katya, in late-stage Soviet Russia befriends another young girl, Tania. Together they fantasize, create imaginary universes, get into fights with each other, and do all the things kids do together. One particular point of friction between the girls is their mutual fatherlessness -- Katya's father died when she was young, Tania's father defected to America -- and their only fights surround this issue. Together they create an imaginary land called Katania. Tania eventually goes to another town to live, and they spend their adolescence and high school years apart. They reunite many years later, and Katya finds that Tania has become materialistic and voraciously bourgeois; indeed, she has built a life -- a world -- around her, strikingly similar to Katania.

Review: Usually when stories open with little girls and dollhouses my eyes glaze over and I get ready for an impending, Grade-A snooze-fest. However, the fact that this story was set in Soviet Russia made me pay a little bit closer attention. Also, Vapnyar seems to have a pretty steady hand unfolding otherwise mundane detail in a way that ties back (or up) to a larger theme. That theme is fatherlessness.

The girls' mutual fatherlessness makes them particularly susceptible to fantasy. Though most of the girls they know don't have fathers (a phenomenon she writes was peculiarly bad in Soviet Russia), they bond over their desire to create an ideal fantasy world and to fine tune the details of that world.

The difference is that, perhaps, Tania never grows up. Her obsession with her still living father drives her to create the ideal life for herself, one which completely bores Katya, who is arguably the less "successful" but more human of the two, and the more interesting.

There's an interesting little twist at the end which, I'm not sure how I feel about. During their childhood the two girls fight over a "father" doll who has a broken leg. The man Tania marries has a bum leg, too....wooooOOOooo. Yeah.

This one is probably forgettable in the long run. Next please...

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