The Cosmopolitans by Nadia Kalman is the story of a family of Russian immigrants reconciling their illusions of America with the reality of life in Stamford, Connecticut. Osip and Stalina are the patriarchs of the Molochnik clan, holding sway over a house of three daughters—Milla, Yana, and Katya—and Pratik, an exchange student from Bangladesh. The novel works almost like a series of short stories, revolving around vignettes wherein each character is given his or her turn to be featured as the centerpiece of the marriage. The reader is guided through the years, watching as the family expands and contracts in a halting, non-linear manner, almost as in a time lapse movie: there are marriages, births, departures, and reunions as the Molochniks struggle individually and collectively to align their real-life trajectories with their American dreams. Throughout, Kalman conjures comic and tragic scenes that are authentic and universal in their emotion but are simultaneously particular and novel in their portrayal.
For instance, Milla’s well-meaning but resoundingly immature husband, Malcom, awakes the day after his wedding and “felt around for his doubts, which he’d discussed at such length with his family, professor, this Buddhist guy who hung around New Haven selling stemless carnations, his dentist, and this girl from high school he’d run into at the drugstore. Miraculously, they’d disappeared... His love for Milla was a stable, growing love, a love like moss.”
The story is also shot through with surrealist, or perhaps magic-realist, qualities. Stalina is in possession of an heirloom handkerchief that speaks to her as the Russian Soul, chastising her when she strays too far from the ideals of Mother Russia. There is also the fact that Katya, the youngest Molochnik daughter, tends to involuntary quote the decidedly masculine voice of Leonid Brezhnev, much to her dismay. The family members’ reactions to her channeling of the Communist leader reveal much about their characters: Osip believes it is a habit of Katya’s that reveals her good mood; Stalina is sure it is a curse she brought upon her daughter because of a long buried secret; Katya herself tries to escape the voice in any way possible. It’s amazing how believable these fantastical turns are in the capable hands of Kalman, who admits that, “as I wrote, I heard the voices of my immigrant family, who spin happy stories out of sad histories and create cautionary tales out of seeming triumphs, and who taught me not to take anything at face value.”
In fact, reading The Cosmopolitans feels a bit like meeting a rambunctious group of strangers for the first time. First impressions may inspire skepticism, as their quirks stand out as oddities that are jarring and unfamiliar. However, with time and proximity, these characters become beloved, their quirks endearing and indulged. Indeed, they come to feel like family.