In the bittersweet coming-of-age novel Memoirs of A Muse, we meet Tanya Rumer, a young girl growing up in Soviet Russia. Tanya is a rather ordinary girl; an underachiever at school, her obvious conventional talents are tempered by a fierce imagination. Tanya is drawn to her grandmother's tales about her family's connection to the famous author Dostoevsky, and in her eyes he appears as a bright and sinister character, almost a fairy-tale villain.
Growing older, she fantasizes over the dead old writers whose works she studies in class - Gogol, Chekhov, and of course Dostoevsky, the "graying hair, and prominent foreheads, the knowing eyes," and she daydreams about being muse, "a companion to older artistic, literary men." She needs a Prince who would save her from being a "potato-peeling Cinderella" and turn her "into a Princess/bad girl.
Granted an escape from Russia in the shape of a white envelope from the U.S. Immigration authorities, Tanya is transplanted to New York, her life suddenly distorted, leaving her facing an uncertain future. Tanya thinks she has escaped reality by leaving Russia, but in fact, she enters a worse reality filled with humiliating jobs, separate bank accounts, prenup agreements, "and the smell of cooked salmon everywhere."
Salvation appears in the form of Mark Schneider, a selfish, snobbish B-grade writer. Blinded to Mark's faults, she begins to entertain the idea of being his muse and, buoyed by the diary she reads detailing Dostoevsky's affair with his mistress Polina, Tanya decides to move in with him.
She soon realizes, however, that Mark is nothing like her Russian literary idol; in fact, he is a pale glimmer of what she first thought. She used to dream of the "old-bearded writer coming to her bed," but Mark, with his paunchy stomach, graying hair on his chest, and the anxious eyes of a chubby little boy – couldn't be farther from her fantasies.
Author Lara Vapnyar beautifully recounts Tanya's unsullied dream of finding Mr. Right, a modern-day Dostoevsky, but having to cope with dashed and unfulfilled hopes while doing so. Tanya builds a dream castle of Mark based on illusion and hope; then she gets to know him, and the illusion crashes and the hopes go.
A charming exploration of sex, intimacy and feminine intuition, Memoirs of a Muse captures the heart of a transplanted woman, set adrift in a new world, who is determined to awaken sexually and emotionally. As she reads about the young Polina's betrayal by Dostoevsky, Tanya is gradually transformed, filled with a cavernous, impalpable yearning. Unfortunately, her subsequent search for this connection doesn't really quell her longing. Tanya learns the hard lesson: while geniuses create art through struggling and suffering, ordinary people are habitually consumed by it. Often all they are left with are the bits and pieces, left to feed off the genius's troubled and concerned mind.