An “irresistible” (Anthony Marra) debut about a Russian American girl’s bumpy path to adulthood
“The voice is so, so sharp and so funny that I am just like tickled—tickled!—to be reading it.”—Emma Straub, The Wall Street Journal
When Oksana’s family begins their new American life in Florida after emigrating from Ukraine, her physicist father delivers pizza at night to make ends meet, her depressed mother sits home all day worrying, and her flamboyant grandmother relishes the attention she gets when she walks Oksana to school, not realizing that the street they’re walking down is known as Prostitute Street. Oksana just wants to have friends and lead a normal life—and though she constantly tries to do the right thing, she keeps getting herself in trouble.
As she grows up, she continues to misbehave, from somewhat accidentally maiming the school bus bully, to stealing the much-coveted (and expensive-to-replace) key to New York City’s Gramercy Park, to falling in love with a married man. As her grandmother moves back to Ukraine, her father gets a job at Goldman Sachs, and her mother knits endless scarves, Oksana longs for a Russia that looms large in her imagination but is a country she never really knew.
When she visits her grandmother in Yalta and learns about Baba’s wartime past and her lost loves, Oksana begins to see just how much alike they are, and comes to a new understanding of how to embrace life and love without causing harm to the people dearest to her. But will Oksana ever quite learn to behave?
Praise for Oksana, Behave!
“Tragicomic and bittersweet . . . an immigrant's coming-of-age tale done with brio.”—Kirkus Reviews
“What luck for readers that Oksana can’t behave! Little devil, infinite imbecile, poor futureless child—all the names her displaced, loving family give to her as she crashes and burns and wanders the wilderness of her inheritance, fit perfectly. As outrageous as she is, as funny and as awful as she can be, though, in Oksana, Maria Kuznetsova has also created a character of great passion and depth—of tragedy, even, too—the very sort that populate the stories of Chekhov and Tolstoy, the poems of Anna Akhmatova, and all the other Russian writers Oksana looks to for comfort and company and some sort of bearing in this absurd world. This novel is a stark, hilarious delight.”—Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and moved to the United States as a child. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Oksana, Behave! is her first novel. Her fiction has appeared in the The Southern Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Mississippi Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Threepenny Review, and other publications. She lives in Iowa City with her family.
Read an Excerpt
1992, Kiev, Ukraine
After I asked what America would be like, my grandmother sighed philosophically and released a mouthful of smoke out the passenger window. “America, Ukraine, it’s all the same in the end,” Baba said, as her brother, Boris, drove us to the station. “We just need a change, that’s all. Some things will be better in America, and some will be worse,” she declared, taking another drag on her cigarette. “But think of all the men!”
I was only seven, so this wasn’t much of a selling point. Mama and Papa were quiet on either side of me in the backseat, offering no consolation or clarification. For the last few months, they had stayed up late whispering about leaving Kiev, and during the day, they left to say goodbye to friends until it was our turn to go, when their remaining friends came over to say goodbye to us. I didn’t really know why we were leaving. All I knew was that we were at the start of a long journey that would end in a place called Florida, a land of beaches and theme parks. And now we were speeding by the Dnieper River and the rolling hills and maple trees I couldn’t imagine living without, even on this gray November day.
“When will we be back?” I said.
“Never,” Mama answered.
“Very soon, darling,” Papa said.
“In a while, foolish child,” said Baba, “when our hearts are healed and hungry for this place once more.”
“Will our hearts be healed by New Year’s?” I asked. I had been looking forward to my school’s New Year’s party, where the teachers let me run around without punishing me, and where I could steal a few tangerines and chocolates when they weren’t looking.
“Do not be sad, Oksana,” Papa said, though he seemed quite sad himself. “Kiev is in your soul. You can return there anytime you want.” He tapped my heart for emphasis.
“Dearest God I don’t believe in,” Mama said, shaking her head. “What did I do to deserve such a silly child? Who cares about Kiev, darling? You have your family with you, lucky fool. Everything you need is right here.”
Baba pointed her cigarette at me. “You know what your problem is?” she said.
“Having an annoying family?” I asked.
“You ask too many questions. What’s there to know, little idiot? You are born, you have some laughs and a rendezvous or two, and then you fall into the void. Just try to enjoy the ride, darling,” she added before turning away.
I didn’t see it at the time, but everyone’s conduct during the rest of the drive captured their distinct approaches to life. There was Papa watching the Dnieper flow by, with longing and misty eyes. Mama with her hands on her lap, looking forward and wishing we’d hurry up already. Baba fluffing her bright-red hair and scoping out the romantic prospects on the street. Her brother, Boris, driving with a smirk, not caring about the lipstick on his collar, the high heel in his backseat, or about staying behind.
And then there was me, always in the dark, not knowing that this was the last day all of us would ever spend in Kiev together or that Florida would just be the first stop in a series of places I would try to call home—stomping and howling, desperate for someone to tell me what would happen next.
I Pledge Allegiance to the Butterfly
We had been living in Gainesville, Florida, for a year when Officer Friendly told my third-grade class that you could call 911 from home and the cops would show up right away. Nobody else seemed as stunned by his revelation as I was, but that was no surprise. I had been released from ESL at the start of my second school year in America, and there were a lot of things I was slow to learn.
Like, for example, why people called me “Rod.” I thought it was because I was Russian or just scrawny, but one day Billy Spencer sang, “Have I told you lately that I love you . . .” at me and I figured out it was Rod for Rod Stewart because I had a bit of a mullet. Mama chopped it off, but the name stuck. The only people who used my real name were my teacher—Mrs. Thomas—and my ESL friend, Raluca, or I should say ex-friend, because she moved back to Romania over the summer without telling me. I tried not to take it personally.
Cassandra called me “Okey Dokey,” which was definitely closer to Oksana than “Rod.” We only talked after class, when we walked to the lobby so she could get picked up by her mom and I could cross the street to meet my grandmother behind the clump of palm trees where I made her wait.
But the day after the officer’s visit, Baba was flirting with Mr. Trevors, the crossing guard, by the front entrance, dangerously on display. Kids swarmed around like the ants in our kitchen, looking for their buses or parents or just their friends to walk home with, and nobody seemed to notice her. Baba squeezed the crossing guard’s arm, her fiery hair flying in all directions, her purple dress flailing about her high-heeled veiny legs.
Cassandra spotted her and said, “Yuck. Your mom is even older than my mom.”
“That’s my grandma.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “How old is she anyway?”
I knew my parents were thirty-one, but I had no idea how old Baba was. “No clue. Eighty, ninety, something like that,” I said. No one at school had spotted her before, and it made me twitch. I said, “You really think if I call the cops they’ll come?”
Her eyes grew wide. “Yes, yes,” she said. “Call the cops!”
“What do I say?”
She rubbed her hands together. “Say, ‘Help! My grandma is trying to kill me!’ ”
“All right,” I said. As Baba caressed Mr. Trevors’s arms and then his stop sign, it sounded like the truth.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ukraine is not what it was anymore and therefore, Oksana’s family decides to leave the country for America. Yet, life is not easy there. The father, a former physicist, does not find an adequate job and therefore delivers pizza; the mother is depressed after having lost another child early in her pregnancy; for the eccentric grandmother things are even worse. And Oksana? She is the strange kid in school. Due to her frequent misunderstandings, she gets herself constantly in trouble and behaves in a very bizarre way in her classmates’ opinion. However, while growing up, life in this strange country gets easier for her, but there is a Ukrainian part in Oksana that still lings for another side of per personality and in Roman, also of Russian decent, she finds a man with whom she can share the undefined longing. Maria Kuznetsova herself knows what Oksana goes through when being moved from an eastern European country to the US, since she herself had to leave Kiev as a child to emigrate. Her debut is hard to sum up in just a couple of words: it is hilariously funny at the beginning when the family arrives in Florida, throughout the plot, however, they superficial amusement turns into a more thoughtful narrative that focuses on the sincerer aspects of migration and its impact on the development of a young person. Oksana surely is a very unique character, very naive and trusting at first, she quite naturally falls prey to masses of misunderstandings and is bullied by the other children. Throughout the novel, it is not the relationships with the outside world that are interesting, but first and foremost, those within the family. Especially between Oksana and her father who is fighting hard to succeed and offer the best to his family. As a young girl, Oksana cannot really understand her mother, it takes some years until she finally realises what makes her depressed and cry so much. However, it is especially the grandmother who has a big impact on her, even though the full extent of their love and commitment will only show at the very end. “Oksana, Behave!” is an exceptional novel in several respects. What I appreciated most is the comical tone with which the story is told and the way in which Maria Kuznetsova showed the girl’s growing up as a process which does not go without trouble but is also heart-warming.
3.5 Stars, rounded up to 4. Unique, quirky, and character driven story with a feisty main character, Oksana. This is definitely not a book I would normally pick to read, but I needed something original, and with the story of Oksana, the immigrant from Kiev, I got a good dose of originality, eccentricity, and humor. Oksana is not a likeable character and I’ve cringed many times at her unapologetic behaviors, but in the end I could not stop rooting for her. We see her evolve from a little, rebellious girl into a grown woman with defined ambitions and stable family life, even though at times Oksana’s self-destructive behaviors left me in doubt that she will ever succeed in her life. Her close relationship with her father was heartwarming and sad at times but it showed Oksana’s soft side, which made her a little more likeable. I loved Baba, Oksana’s grandmother, who was as honest as they come, and with her red hair and sassiness, she was determined not to settle for less than she deserved. Baba and Oksana’s relationship was unique, comical, and unconventional, and I could not stop smirking every time these two got together. This book was well written, character driven with a little plot, but it was well structured, and never tedious. It is not a book for everyone and I think a lot of readers will find it odd and maybe a little off-putting, but I believe that we all need books like this one in our lives. Thank you NetGalley, Random House Publishing Group, and the author, Maria Kuznetsova, for an opportunity to read an ARC of this story in exchange for my honest opinion.
I was looking forward to reading this book. It sounded like a fun read, which it was partly. I enjoyed the author's writing and much of the book. But truthfully, Oksana seemed like a spoiled brat and I felt no connection to her. Some parts of the book seemed to drag so I guess this just wasn't my kind of book. * I was provided an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher. It was my own decision to read and review this book.