By Nadia Kalman
Livingston Press, 2010
$28, Hardcover; $17.95, Paper
Reviewed by Caroline McLean
The Cosmopolitans is Nadia Kalman’s intelligent and entertaining debut novel. Drawing from her own immigrant experience, Kalman explores the dynamics of the fictional Molochniks, a Russian-Jewish family from the former Soviet Union, as they assimilate to life in Stamford, Connecticut. The novel’s eight sections each begin with a chart tracking the changes the family undergoes as each daughter explores love and marriage. If readers resist the urge to skip ahead to glance at the next chart, they will be rewarded with brief, witty insights into the lives of the characters, for which each chapter is titled. “They are none of them fans of tradition,” Kalman writes, a sentence which is the overall motif of the novel.
The heads of the family, Stalina, a biochemist, and Osip, an engineer, are the most highly educated characters of the novel, yet they have the most problems communicating, alternating between broken English and Russian. While they systematically embrace their new culture, the parents expect their daughters to be submissive and marry Jewish men of their parents’ choosing.
Stalina and Osip are alternately disappointed and bemused as Milla, Yana, and Katya clear their own paths. While Milla follows the expected route to some degree, establishing herself as an accountant and wife to Malcolm, a member of the prominent New England Strauss family, (descendents of the jean mogul Levi Strauss), she is tormented by her attraction to the Polish female secretary at her firm. Yana, a proto-feminist, must reaffirm her beliefs as she falls for Pratik, a Bangladeshi exchange student. The youngest daughter, Katya, faces a struggle with substance abuse and a Tourrete’s-like affliction, and eventually finds solace in Roman, a newly immigrated construction worker/DJ/sometimes shoplifter nephew of family friends.
While some readers may find it difficult to jump between characters, the sections are relatively short and Kalman’s narrative style invokes a suspense that will keep most reading on. What the work lacks in depth it makes up for with mordant wit and seamless style, with a bit of magic realism thrown in, making The Cosmopolitans not only a perfect addition to any contemporary Judaic study, but all in all, a near-perfect debut. Feb. 2011
Caroline McLean is a senior English major at the University of Montevallo and an intern at the Alabama Writers’ Forum.