Cbr11bingo Reader’s Choice, substituting for Two heads are better than one
I picked this one up for the cover, but I bought it because it is related to the interests of my youth — Slavic studies and history. Maria Kuznetsova’s debut novel manages to be both funny and serious as she describes the life of Oksana Ivanovna Konnikova from her childhood, when the family moved from Kiev to Florida, until her adulthood. Oksana has to deal with loss, uprootedness, unrequited loves, and disappointing career options as she strives to find love and success as a writer.
Oksana serves as the narrator and starts her story in Florida. As noted above, she, her parents and her grandmother Baba moved from Kiev to Florida in 1992 when she was a child. Oksana’s mother is Jewish and feels that the discrimination and oppression of Jews in Soviet Russia has made life there untenable. Oksana is not thrilled by the move and, like many children, resents that decisions are made for her without her input. Oksana’s father was a physicist and even though he has found a university job in Florida, he still takes an added job delivering pizza to make ends meet. Oksana shares a room with her grandmother, who is colorful to say the least! Baba is in her 50s when the story opens, and she is a live wire. Red haired and always dressed to impress, Baba enjoys the attention of the opposite sex. She is also fond of romance novels and speaks openly and frankly to Oksana about her love life. As a child, Oksana finds her grandmother somewhat oppressive, but when she and her parents move to Ohio without Baba, she is saddened. Before the move, Baba takes Oksana to the beach one last time, where Oksana considers her Baba and reflects,
She had lost everything: her country, her youth, her father, her daughter, her husband, and soon she would lose us, and yet she hummed and toed the water …she was happier than I had ever felt.
While Baba does not resurface until the final chapters of the book, she is nonetheless a presence throughout the story. Baba’s fearlessness, particularly as details of her past are brought to light, is a contrast to Oksana’s fearfulness. Oksana is the kind of girl/woman who seems to have a hard outer shell but who is quite insecure. She doubts herself and her abilities but is outwardly critical and can be sarcastic. She is very smart, as early chapters devoted to her school years show, but has very few close friends, and her relationships with boys and later men are not exactly healthy.
While in college at Duke, Oksana becomes devoted to writing and hopes to enter an MFA program upon graduation. She is also obsessed with a fellow student who seems interested in her yet sleeps with almost every other woman on campus except her. Oksana’s dreams for an MFA and a relationship with this guy end up frustrated, and Oksana as an adult finds herself drifting around jobs and men who are not what she wants. Believing that her life will turn around if she moves West and gets in a graduate program, Oksana winds up at UC Davis and involved with a married man. Under the pretense of research, Oksana runs from her problems to Yalta where she spends time with Baba.
The final chapters of Oksana, Behave! do not ties things up neatly, but they do show Oksana working her way toward her goals. She is not perfect. She continues to make dubious choices. Yet she can see her family, her history and perhaps even herself more clearly. She can, perhaps, be happy as her grandmother was despite the number of things that went wrong in her life. Oksana, Behave! is an amazing novel. Parts of it are absolutely hilarious and parts just so sad. But Oksana herself is always interesting and I never stopped rooting for her. I’m looking forward to reading more from Maria Kuznetsova.