by Lara Vapnar
What happens to your social media presence after you die? Unless you have plans with someone to take down your Facebook page, it will live on forever. So why shouldn't it keep speaking as if it were you? This is the question asked by Still Here, the charming if slightly wobbly new novel by Lara Vapnar.
Here's an introduction from the publisher:
Vica, Vadik, Sergey, and Regina are émigrés living in New York City. Each in their mid-thirties, they're old friends from Russia who've remained close, though the pressures of daily life in America bear down on them. Vica, medical researcher [blogger note: She's a radiology tech, not a medical researcher] and mother of one, must keep her Staten Island household together while her husband, Sergey, spins through a cycle of lost jobs as an analyst, hoping his great ideas for a hot new app will someday make him rich. Regina, once an esteemed translator, is now married to a wealthy investor and spends her days holed up in a sweeping Tribeca loft, curtains drawn, watching television and eating takeout; and Vadik, ever in search of a sense of newness, works hard as a programmer to keep his new apartment, new girlfriend, and new life in Williamsburg totally pristine.The premise of having four thirtysomething Russian émigrés living in New York City works really well for me. I could see this being made into a smart indie film with a kind of glossy sheen around it and its wealthy (Regina), hip (Vadik), eccentric, creative (Sergey) and hardworking, sassy (Vica) characters. I would totally Netflix this on a Saturday night curled up with my cats and a glass of wine. The characterizations are the strength of this novel. The back stories, personalities and quirks of these characters was interesting enough to keep me reading.
The plot falls a bit flat, though. Vadik and Regina's husband both work in the tech industry, and Sergey is desperate to break in with his app idea. The way it's written, though, he takes such a slow and lackadaisical approach that it's really difficult to even care by the end whether he gets it or not. Meanwhile, all the other characters sort of meander through plots of their own, including relationship issues, family decisions and career choices, which by the end it's pretty difficult to care about. Relationships break up and stay together and you kind of read it with about the same amount of interest you read posts from your more distant Facebook friends. OK, that happened. OK, good to know. Check, check, check.
Still Here is clearly trying to say something about social media and relationships in the digital age, and in that way it is lightly interesting. This question of what happens to your Facebook profile after you die is explored through surface emotions like grief, gratitude, and even sometimes annoyance, but it's not really dealt with in any kind of meaningful way, and the outcomes of these ideas are not seen in the novel, so I guess we'll never know. Characters throughout the novel do use and reference platforms like Gmail and Facebook, and occasionally it's obvious that they are purposely setting up moments in their lives to be social-media-worthy, but there's nothing particularly novel or revealing involved in the portrayal of these moments. I feel like a lot of people would just read this book and not think twice about those scenes or what the author might be trying to say.
I'd say Still Here is a fun light read if you are interested in thirtysomething friendships in the social media age. Vapnar's characterizations really shine. However, if you are looking for an intriguing plotline or in-depth discussion of the effects of social media on modern relationships, you might need to look elsewhere. The ultimate outcomes in this book did not really leave me with a lot of emotional payoff, but I did find myself remembering and thinking about the characters after finishing the book.