Lara Vapnyar has a fascination with food, although not of the type usually written about and praised. Vapnyar's selection of food resembles her approach to fiction, which is simple, straightforward, and sustaining. Her first collection of short stories (There are Jews in My House) showed the promise of a gifted story writer, and this second collection (a novel was published in between) confirm earlier expectations. The Russian born writer, now living in New York, came to the U.S. when she was 23 but writes in English. Perhaps writing in a second language has granted Vapnyar an economy with words other writers may want to imitate.
Many of the stories deal with the Russian immigrant experience, especially in New York, where all the Russians are henceforth working as "computer programmers" no matter what their previous work entailed. Nina, the main character in the opening "A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf," actually was a computer programmer. Now she is obsessed with vegetable shopping, although she never actually gets around to cooking with them. Cooking food, as in many of these stories, indicates a hope for the future, of what people like Nina will someday accomplish. In the meantime, the vegetables rot in the refrigerator, another set of hopes turning moldy. However, while Vapnyar may deal in realism, she is not above seeing hope as the story ends with Nina standing on a chair above the broccoli finally steaming on the stove as "its warm aroma of ... rose up, caressing Nina's face, enveloping the whole of her."
The realism also takes hold in "Salad Olivier" where we see the heroine challenged to find a husband which, according to a psychologist, will allow her father to rise from the couch and reenter life. When she discovers such a man she realizes he may be more for his parents than for her, although she likes everything about him. Tempted to move on, she maintains the relationship in way that may be more familiar to most than they are comfortable with.