I added The Cosmopolitans to my wish list after seeing Nadia Kalman read an excerpt at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I’d never heard of her or the book, but liked the wedding scene she chose for the reading–I was enticed.
The book is divided into sections, which are in turn divided into very short chapters of a page or three. Each section starts with a small diagram of a family tree. Occupying the top two rectangles are the parents, Osip and Stalina Molochnik, Russian emigres to Stamford, CT. A diamond is attached to Stalina via an arrow, and is labeled “The Russian Soul.” Floating next to Osip is his brother Lev. The Molochnik’s three daughters–Milla, Yana and Katya–are on the tier below them. As the story progresses, other characters are added to and removed from the tree–foreign exchange students, boyfriends, husbands, children. In the end, the Russian Soul (which, is embodied by a mystical handkerchief) is transferred from Stalina to another character (I won’t ruin for you who).
Lev’s very short, metaphorical chapters, which tend to start each section, are in the first person. Other chapters in the third, and are given to parents, daughters, mothers-in-law, that exchange student turned husband. Because these segments are so brief and change voices so frequently, I never fell into a rhythm with the book. Yet, I appreciated this structure because staying too long with any of these characters isn’t something I would have wanted to do. None of them are particularly likable, though some are sympathetic.
I wanted most to read about the daughters. Milla, the oldest, was the bride in the wedding scene I heard at the Festival, a wedding she was taking part in despite her love for a female coworker. The middle daughter, Yana, was an overzealous feminist with a burgeoning teaching career who finds unexpected love. The youngest and most troubled daughter, Katya, was the hardest to grasp–her drug problems and strange choices for companionship needed more development. Her scenes with her father, though, were lovely.
I had a sense that Milla was the heart of the book–many other plot developments spark from her story and, for a time, the characters seemed to orbit her–but near the end of the book, she dropped off and her most significant moment happens off the page. I thought, then, that Stalina could have been the heart–she was the one with the Russian Soul, after all. But, no–there is not enough of her in the book to constitute its center. Does a book necessarily need one character to be more important the rest? Maybe not, but I think this one would have benefited from a sharper focus.
I enjoyed how Kalman played with literary references–to Anna Karenina (All happy families…), Fiddler on the Roof (explicitly referenced) and Austen (eligible daughters, passed around suitors, marriage plot)–as well as magical realism and satire. All in all, I was happy to read this book and was interested in the structure, but didn’t get to spend long enough with any of the characters, or get close enough to any of them, to feel fully invested in their stories. I would be excited to read Nadia Kalman’s next book and see how her work evolves from here.