Published by Harper Collins on June 3, 2013
Genres: Literary Fiction
Source: Publisher, TLC Book Tours
Raised in a Russian neighborhood in Brooklyn, Slava is eager to put the immigrant life behind him. He slaves away at his lowly job at Century, one of the most prestigious magazines in the country, hoping to be noticed and given the opportunity to write something real. But when it becomes apparent that he doesn’t have a future writing for the magazine, he turns his creative attention to a different outlet: writing fraudulent claims letters to a German Holocaust restitution fund for his grandfather and other Soviet immigrants who “didn’t suffer in the exact way” they needed to in order to qualify for compensation.
These elderly immigrants may not have suffered directly in ghettos or forced labor camps, but didn’t they suffer at the hands of the Germans all the same? They lost limbs, friends, and family to the army. They were hungry and displaced and made to seek a new home in a country to which they would never assimilate. They believe they deserve restitution, and Slava has the skills to forge their claims.
In writing the letters for dozens of his grandfather’s friends, Slava delves into the mysterious life of his grandmother, a woman who did endure life in a ghetto during the war. Haunted by her experience, she refused to talk about it. When she dies shortly before A Replacement Life begins, Slava realizes that her stories have died with her. As he writes the letters describing where the claimants were during the years of the war, he uses his grandmother as a lens into that time; although the names on his letters are of old men, he invents stories as if they were his grandmother’s. Because her memories are now gone, Slava uses his fiction to try to connect with her.
As Slava writes these letters, he is pulled in two directions: the past, scraping by in Brooklyn, childhood memories, and the family memories of Russia and immigration; and the future, Manhattan, life as a writer, assimilating with American culture. This tension is present not only in his job and the demands of his grandfather, but in the two women who capture his attention: Vera, a childhood friend; and Arianna, a co-worker at Century.
I had a lot of trouble getting into this novel. The beginning felt very bleak, and I seriously considered DNF-ing it for the first 40 pages. However, I’m glad I stuck with it; it picked up about 50 pages in, and I wound up enjoying this novel. It has some awkwardly phrased sentences, which I attributed to Fishman being, himself, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union; some sentences seem like they might have been written with Russian grammar in mind, rather than English. (I’m not referring to the dialog.) They weren’t super frequent, and I don’t know if any of them will be edited in the final version of this novel.
Aside from the few strange sentences, the writing in this book is lovely. I also enjoyed reading a novel from the perspective of a Russian immigrant to the US, and the tension between old and new that Slava experiences. It’s not a perspective that I’ve read before, and it was interesting to get this glimpse into a cultural subset that I’m not familiar with. A Replacement Life also raises interesting questions about fact vs. fiction and how to place a value on suffering. Altogether, I thought it was a very good book for readers who are interested in learning more about people of diverse backgrounds.