Tolstoy’s famous quote about happy and unhappy families is the subject of a heated family argument early on in The Cosmopolitans. The quote foreshadows the lives of the family we are about to meet. You may think you know a family like the Molochniks, but Nadia Kalman brings them into your life.
They are striving Russian immigrants living in an alien suburban America. There is a classconscious biologist mother, Stalina, named after Stalin, and a hard working father, Osip, (think Tevye) trying to understand and cope with three different and confusing daughters. There is Milla, the good studious girl, Yana, the leftwing teacher, and Katya, the fragile one who involuntarily spouts Leonid Brezhnev quotes imitating his deep voice. All enter precarious relationships and marriages. Then add an anomaly to the family—a talking handkerchief that depicts the “Russian Soul.” These characters and others make for a most witty, funny, irreverent, and extremely touching and entertaining story.
Kalman structures the book in a unique way. A family tree diagram precedes each chapter to announce the many characters’ alignments and movements within the family.Each character is presented in short, absorbing two to three page segments throughout the book, revealing their unique points of view. This technique moves the book quickly along as we reconnect repeatedly with each storytellers’ insights and accounts of events.
Kalman, who came to America as a child, keenly observes the foibles, frailties, weaknesses, and inconsistencies of the Molochniks, but treats them with respect and warmth. Her use of the Russian-English dialect adds veracity and amusement to the story.
There are numerous laugh out loud moments as well as those quiet shake your head empathetic ones. We move through the Molochniks’ family life, happily and unhappily, living day to day with their tenacity.
1. The book begins with Milla Molochnik and Malcolm Strauss planning a wedding, despite Milla’s crush on a female co-worker, the opposition of Malcolm’s parents, and Malcolm’s emotional ties to an ex-girlfriend. Why, in the face of all these obstacles, do Milla and Malcolm get married?
2. Do you think the Russian Soul in the book is real, or a figment of the characters’ imaginations, or both?
3. Do you think the three Molochnik sisters are more alike or more different from one another? What do you think they might say in response to that question?
4. What do you think of Stalina and Osip Molochnik as parents?
5. Is Jean Strauss a sympathetic character? Why or why not? How about Bobby Strauss?
6. According to Webster’s dictionary, a cosmopolitan is “a person who is free from local, provincial, or national bias or attachment.” How cosmopolitan are the Molochniks? What about the other characters in the book? Is it possible for anyone to be fully cosmopolitan?
7. Do any of the characters remind you of people in your own family? How so?
8. At the end of the novel, Yana and Pratik, Katya and Roman, and Milla and Theandra are together. What kind of future do you predict for these couples?
9. What is the role of Lev in the novel? Do you think of him as a character within the novel’s action, or is he separate from it?
10. Many cultures clash in the novel. Do you think its ultimate message is that people are basically different, basically the same, or somewhere in between?
By Nadia Kalman
My first work of fiction was a story I told myself. When my family emigrated from what was then the Soviet Union, I decided my new classmates spoke Russian. Granted, they could be a bit slow sometimes, passing the yellow crayon when I’d clearly asked for orange. I’d give them a teacherly, disappointed look then—the same look I’d receive a few minutes later when they addressed me in t heir made-up tongue. No wonder they didn’t know their colors yet; they didn’t practice!
I was trying to comfort myself, inventing a world in which these strangers and I understood each other. And yet, in some sense, we were creating that world, too. Pointing, nodding, convincing myself I was understood, I made my first American friends before I could speak a single English word.
Of course, it’s too simple to say that stories only draw us together. The summer I was seven, in the heart of the Evil Empire Eighties, my grandparents—both heavily-accented submarine buffs—took me on a trip to Groton. Our patriotic motel keeper, suspicious of our interest in the USS Nautilus, tried to have us arrested as spies. She was operating under a very different narrative.
And yet, I can’t help but admit that there was truth in the motel keeper’s story; immigrants are a species of spy. We hide and try to pass undetected; we parse secrets. It was this parsing, perhaps, that led me to become a writer.
I’ve long thought about the stories we tell, the ways they connect and divide us. What did it mean that we said we’d emigrated for “freedom,” when we came from a place where that word had almost no meaning? What did it mean that we wanted to live as Jews, even as we wished for the word “Jew” to vanish from our identity cards?
This is also the contention within every family—the competing urges to be together, and to find our own ways in the world—and one that echoes through Jewish history from the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel onward. All this was on my mind as I wrote my novel.
The Cosmopolitans follows the Molochniks, a Russian Jewish family in Connecticut, as three daughters marry very different suitors. The plot was inspired by Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories, which situated humor in the midst of Tsarist Russia’s horrors in a way that felt very familiar. My own relatives have always spun comedy from frightening memories: the greatgrandparents trying to arrange a bris in the midst of an anti-Semitic campaign, the great-uncle evacuating his mistress and wife in adjoining train cars, just ahead of the German army. We told these stories to keep our memories alive without being haunted by them; we wanted to know our past and still move forward.
I hoped to give voice to these contradictory impulses. The Cosmopolitans is periodically narrated by Lev Molochnik, whose past in Soviet labor camps, and inability to comfort himself with misremembering, stop him from living his life in all but the most basic ways. On the other side is the Strauss family, into which one Molochnik daughter marries. Generations removed from immigration, they are seemingly fully at home in America. Yet matriarch Jean Strauss claims every famous Strauss as a relation—the composer, the jeans-maker, the owners of Macy’s and more—trying to construct for herself a sense of belonging, a history that eludes her. One character is chained to an exacting truth about the past, and so cannot embrace the present; the other seeks safety in fiction, and finds herself rootless and alone. Very different anxieties dovetail.
I began this novel thinking that it was going to be a whole-cloth invention, and then, like the characters in it, discovered that family history has a way of asserting itself. I remembered my great-uncle, who spent decades in the Gulag; I remembered family stories. As I wrote, I came to understand, just as the Molochniks do, that you can’t escape your family. Exasperating as this is, it can be a great comfort, too.
When I write, I seek to understand people—in my family and outside of it—who initially seem too distant to fathom, and to imagine situations that seem too absurd ever to become real. My models include Sholem Aleichem, and Osip Mandelstam, but also some writers—Gogol, Pushkin—who were well-documented anti-Semites. I’ve often wondered what prevented these writers’ vast empathy from extending to Jewish people. In turn, I wonder where my own empathy and understanding fail, and how I may extend them. It’s a process that involves trial and error, like a kindergartener holding out crayons until, at last, one is right.