Oksana, Behave!

Maria Kuznetso­va

  • Review
By – February 11, 2019

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.

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