Book Review: OKSANA, BEHAVE! a self-destructive protagonist from Kiev growing up in the U.S.

Kuznetsova, Maria - Oksana, Behave coverOksana, Behave!
Maria Kuznetsova

Oksana Konnikova moved to the United States from Kiev with her parents when she was a child. Although her father was a Math Olympics champion in Russia, while working as a physicist in Gainesville, Florida, he had to deliver pizza to make ends meet. Her mother, struggling to find work as an accountant, often fell into depression. And she shared a room with her sassy grandmother who enjoyed the catcalls she received while walking down Prostitute Street. They affectionately call Oksana “fool” or “idiot” but it speaks to a distance between her and her family, perhaps most sadly illustrated when her parents and grandmother go out to dinner to celebrate but leave her behind in the apartment, alone.

Each chapter is written almost as if a self-contained short story and jumps forward in time with only the characters in common. The structure was interesting, and I got a kick out of seeing the brief mentions of Oksana’s high school friend, Lily, and her changing careers, throughout the book. At the same time, the quality and impact of the chapters was uneven. It also offers a less intimate view of the characters since we see them in bits over many time periods.

Oksana certainly is badly behaved. As a child, testing if the police will really come if she calls 911, she reports that her grandmother is trying to kill her. When a tween, she severely injures a bully when protecting a younger child from his abuses. As she ages, her behavior becomes both more selfish and more self-destructive, leaving a swath of cruel destruction in its wake. Even at the end of the novel, when her life has changed dramatically, her choices have not, and it isn’t clear she’s learned anything from the pain she’s caused.

I had also expected much more mediation on the immigrant experience. Her name and other people’s difficulty pronouncing it, her family’s food preferences, and her travel to the Ukraine are embedded in the story, but I’m not sure if we are to take Oksana’s bad behavior as a manifestation of her immigrant experience, her personality, or the result of her upbringing.

Also, I’d hoped for more information on her grandmother’s experiences in the war. From the description, I thought this would play more of a role. Certainly, this history was important to Oksana, but it wasn’t included in the novel but for a paragraph or two.

Maria Kuznetsova does have some wonderful passages and heartrending dialogue, but I found myself empathizing much more with Oksana’s victims than with her. I hoped she would develop and change over the course of the novel, but she never seemed to learn to behave. Maybe, though, the end was just the beginning.

Thank you to NetGalley and Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

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