Tales of immigrant life often involve missing one home while adjusting to the strangeness of another. Maria Kuznetsova’s Oksana, Behave! is a novel that shows the complexity of that struggle in its portrait of a girl who longs for a country that she never really knew.
This coming-of-age story is told from the spunky and candid perspective of young Oksana. Her narrative begins with being squeezed into the backseat of a car in Kiev at the age of seven. As she travels to America with her mother, father, and grandmother, she starts to doubt that sharing a room with her grandmother in Florida is going to be any better than the life she left in the Ukraine. This is the first in a series of segments that capture the essence of Oksana’s life; each chapter skips anywhere from five to ten years but plunges the reader into a moment as if we’ve been there the entire time. As Oksana ages from a mischievous child to a thirty-year old adult, her witty voice only becomes more distinct.
Kuznetsova authentically portrays the nuances of growing up with a Soviet Jewish family. Sharing a collective memory, especially a painful one, along with a language and culture, brings a level of closeness impossible to replicate in other areas of life. But Oksana, like many children of Soviet immigrants, can’t seem to break the wall her parents and grandmother built as a byproduct of the suffering they endured.
The barriers between Oksana and her family force her to cope alone with her feelings of alienation. Consequently, she misbehaves as a child and resorts to a series of questionable behaviors as a young adult. Oksana resembles an antihero — charmingly engaging us in her impish activities and shamelessly owning who she is. “I have tried to love people, but I am selfish at heart,” she says at one point.
As Oksana grows older, the memory of her motherland dissipates, and her struggle to fit in intensifies. Her struggle to understand her place in the world causes her to romanticize a country she doesn’t truly know.
Each character is complex and unforgettable, from Oksana’s vivacious and sexual grandmother to her cold and distant mother who calls Oksana “little idiot” and often asks, “What have I done to deserve this child? Did I commit murder in a past life I don’t believe in? Genocide? Was I Stalin himself?”
Oksana, Behave! provides insight into the assimilation experience for Soviet families. Oksana embodies someone who is stuck in between — growing up in the United States while not feeling fully American. But even in heavier moments, Kuznetsova makes us laugh using Oksana’s genuine and comically honest character as she paves her own path to self-discovery.
Michelle Zaurov is Jewish Book Council’s program associate. She graduated from Binghamton University in New York, where she studied English and literature. She has worked as a journalist writing for the Home Reporter, a local Brooklyn publication. She enjoys reading realistic fiction and fantasy novels, especially with a strong female lead.