Lara Vapnyar’s sixth book is a clever novel encompassing love and death, couched in an instruction manual.
A writer living in New York and the mother of two, Katya is in the middle of a divorce, is engaged to a rich man she doesn’t love and is still in love with another man who will never be hers. Meanwhile, Katya’s dying mother makes notes for a math textbook that’s very different from the guides she wrote in Moscow. This textbook is intended for nonmathematicians, as it applies math to real life. These notes are Katya’s last link to her fading mother, who uses the math to make sense of her messy life.
In secular and chaotic post-Soviet Russia, math provides a clear-cut rationality in which Katya’s mom can put her faith. But to Katya, her mother’s cryptic math notes pose more questions than answers. Still, she discovers creative connections between concepts such as “operations in curved space” and her situation. Her house is like artist M.C. Escher’s “spatial paradox,” with staircases leading nowhere and rooms that don’t attach. Negative numbers take up actual, painful space. Parallel lines meet in a multidimensional universe where losing a mom feels similar to falling in love.
Graphs, illustrations, pictures and notes in the text add levity. Katya is very funny as well. She gets in trouble for laughing in sensitive situations. Her behavior is extreme and childlike. She’s easy to love, and her first-person voice is accessible and engaging. The men to whom she’s attached are bright and witty, sharing her love of literature and film. She mentions Alice Munro as a favorite author, and Vapnyar’s own admiration of Munro shows in the earthy, elegant prose.
Toward the end, the math associations fall away, and the anecdotes become shorter and more serious. The dark side of comedy shows through in a culminating glimpse of a life on the verge of sweeping change. Ultimately, Katya is narrating her tale to herself, a self-help guide to grow up and become the adult her mother wishes her to be.
A math workbook about love and death, Divide Me by Zero yields humorous and profound life lessons.