or publisher, but I always assume debutantes to be female. It is the fault of the publisher that Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook has a picture of a woman on the cover. Whilst there are a few strong female characters in the book, it is quite clearly the story of Vladamir Gruskin, Russian immigrant, in post-communist Eastern Europe running pyramid schemes and basically fleecing all and sundry.

This is a stab at the loveable bounder novel, which fails because it spends far too much time trying to make the hero quirky and loveable. He only gets to Prava – the main setting of the novel – halfway through after a number of rather pointless scrapes which are supposed to illuminate Vladamir’s character but are just attempts to set up the quirky stall. The book is not really interested in the ethical side of Vlad’s pyramid scheme – its fine that he is fleecing dumb Americans. You get the feeling that the move into dealing horse tranquilizers is supposed to mark a further moral downfall, but since nothing in the writing indicated this, we just take it as another piece of hokum. The chapters were about the right length to read on the bus, and the supposed insight into Russian Jewish immigrant psychology is initially tempting. There is no depth to the novel though, it is as misleading as its own cover. Vladamir is not the kind of debutante I was expecting, and as handbooks go this is not exactly instructive (and you would need bloody big hands too).