An odd, genre-bending tribute to Vladimir Nabokov.
Nabokov, the master of narrative trickery and literary puzzles, was known for, among countless other accolades and seminal works, his innovative autobiography, Speak Memory, which was less a straightforward memoir than a series of memories that blurred fiction and fact and past and present. It is only fitting then, that literary scholar Zanganeh, obsessed with Nabokov since finding a copy of Ada on her mother's nightstand long before it was appropriate reading material for her, uses a similarly vague structure in this work. The author intertwines her memories as a reader of Nabokov with scenes from his life and his books, as well as present-day visits with his son Dmitri. Zanganeh is not the first to wax philosophical about Nabokov, though her interrogation of his work and her own experiences with it is more scholarly and less immediately compelling than that of her famous counterpart, Azar Nafisi. Structuring the narrative around the notion of happiness, Zanganeh delves deeply into his feelings on love, both in his novels and in his lifelong passionate relationship with his wife and unconditional affection for his only son. She muses on place, traveling through the American West that so enchanted Nabokov, and on nature, focusing on his absolute passion for butterflies. Though the author at times brilliantly captures Nabokov's calculated whimsy, some of her material feels gimmicky and detracts from her scholarship. The recountings of conversations with Dmitri, for example, are both lovely and informative, and are far more effective than imagined conversations with his long-dead father.
There are moments of real beauty here, but emulating Nabokov is not a task to be taken lightly. Zanganeh's literary hero left behind some awfully big shoes, which she just can't quite fill.