Monday, May 15, 2006

Glass Screens, Glass Slippers

The New Yorker's short story this week is "Cinderella School," by Lara Vapnyar. This is the story of a young Russian woman, Genya, who has immigrated to New York with her husband. She has been looking for a job for a year, and she finally finds one, teaching English at the Cinderella School, a bizarre establishment that plans to add English classes to its offerings of witchcraft, laxative tea, and holistic medicine. So far as we are told, the holistic medicine consists entirely of the application of positive thinking to the problem of erectile disfunction.

It's an entertaining story and an easy read. As the title suggests, this story is based on fantasies, on the fairy tales we tell ourselves, ranging from the self-delusion of Genya's white lie when she modifies her college diploma to indicate that she is qualified to teach English, to her use of movies to teach English (in particular "Pretty Woman," Hollywood's version of Cinderella), to the hopeful and doomed fantasy of all immigrants: that their lives will be magically made better by relocation to a new land.

Also interesting are references to "Red" and "Blue," films by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, and the echoes of those films within the narrative. In "Red," the unbreachable separation between a young woman and an older judge is symbolized by a car window (a sheet of glass); in this story, Genya tells the proprietor of the Cinderella School, an older man to whom she feels some attraction, that she feels shut off from Manhattan by a glass screen. In "Blue," a woman whose husband and daughter are killed in an accident sells her estate, gives up everything she owns, and moves, only to find that she can't escape her grief, no matter where she goes... just as the immigrants in this story learn that even though they have moved to the United States, they cannot escape being who they are.