‘Divide Me by Zero’ by Lara Vapnyar – Of Mathematics and Lovers


‘Divide Me by Zero’ by Lara Vapnyar (2019) – 354 pages

‘Divide Me by Zero’ starts out strong. I thought I was going to love this novel.

And then wasn’t life itself a perfect dark comedy too, with its journey to an inevitable tragic ending interspersed with absurd events providing comic relief?”

Each chapter of ‘Divide Me by Zero’ starts with a handwritten note from an in-progress mathematics text book. That was fine with me because long ago in 1970, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a BA in Mathematics. In my younger days, I was considered somewhat of a math prodigy. However my downfall came when for my sophomore year in college I signed up for a Contemporary Literature course to fulfill my Humanities requirements. We read James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc. Unfortumately I had to drop the course when I couldn’t make it through ‘Absalom, Absalom’ which is probably the densest of all William Faulkner novels. However by that time I was so enamored of literature that I took the course over again. This time we were assigned ‘Light in August’ by Faulkner, and I was able to complete it successfully and actually enjoyed it. I did stick to completing my math major figuring that was the better way to ensure my financial future, but my main passion had become literature.

So ‘Divide Me by Zero’ should have been a good fit for me, combining as it does both mathematics and fiction.

The first third of ‘Divide Me by Zero’, the part that takes place while our narrator Katya still lives in Russia during the late 1980s and 1990s, could be entitled ‘Perestroika and the Sexual Revolution Come to Russia’. Throughout the entire novel Katya expresses an enthusiasm and openness for sex reminiscent of the early stages of the sexual revolution here in the States during the 1960s and 1970s.

After going through a couple of boyfriends in Russia, Katya and her new husband Len emigrate to the United States.

In seventeen years of my marriage, I have spent 330 happy days with Len and 6,240 days ranging from desperartely unhappy to simply uncomfortable. I wonder if this math is terribly sad or if this is how most marriages work.”

One of the nice features in the novel is when the author injects notes to the reader interrupting the narrative such as the following:

Note to a cynical reader, I was twenty then, I didn’t know a whole lot about how life works!”

I found these occasional notes meaningful and fun.

However the novel is mostly the story of Katya’s long history of relationships with various men, with the only novelty being her upbringing in Russia. I felt that there was little that was original or noteworthy in these encounters that hasn’t already been done in countless divorce novels.

In the last 60 pages, Lara Vapnyar switches gears, shortens the chapters, and devotes these pages to Katya’s mother’s last days with cancer. These pages are poignant and sad but not particularly original either.


Grade:    C+


3 responses to this post.

  1. Did you hear me burst out laughing when I got to “However my downfall came when for my sophomore year in college I signed up for a Contemporary Literature course to fulfil my Humanities requirements”?
    You raise a serious issue, though. Over at My French Quest, a beautiful blog, Robyn’s latest post is about Sartre’s What is Literature, which he wrote after the war. There is a great deal to think about in her post…but amongst other things I was interested in what he had to say about the importance of the writer having something significant to say:
    “Every writer should ask: “What aspect of the world do you want to disclose? What change do you want to bring into the world by this disclosure?”
    I think you are right to draw attention to the “countless other divorce novels” and the lack of originality even in the poignant bits of this novel. By the sound of it, the only thing that’s original about this novel is the ‘exoticism’ of the author and the link with maths for the format.
    I wonder if the reason we get so many of these kinds of unoriginal novels (apart from the publisher’s profit motive) is because people don’t keep diaries any more. Stuff happens, as it inevitably does, and we have intense feelings for which writing is the only release. But instead of consigning the feelings to a personal diary or journal, there is an impulse to share them, alas, in a book.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      I couldn’t hear you laugh.
      Many years ago, I was delighted to discover that the fiction of Jean Paul Sartre was easy to follow and understand and very readable. I read his Roads to Freedom Trilogy (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Troubled Sleep) as well as his novella Nausea.
      His philosophical work has been another matter for me. Perhaps if I read ‘What is Literature’, I might understand him better. Since he is an excellent fiction writer, I would be interested in his views of literature.

      I did read that post by Robyn but did not completely follow it. I did note that she considers Van Gogh as her favorite artist. My tastes run more toward Rembrandt, Matisse, Degas, and Van der Meer.
      I would not at all mind a divorce novel if it was particularly insightful and original and not the same old, same old.
      I do think diaries are an excellent means of improving one’s writing. I do write down my thoughts on a novel while I’m reading it so I can write about it later.



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