Plunging into the chaotic world of The Cosmopolitans, Nadia Kalman's debut novel about a family of Russian immigrants living in Connecticut, may give the unprepared reader a case of the bends. With an omnipotent Russian Soul that speaks through a handkerchief, and a daughter, Katya, who suffers from an inexplicable mental illness (she involuntarily channels the voice of Brezhnev), Kalman's comic and subversive riff on Fiddler on the Roof is a far cry from the tidy musical of yore.
Milla, the well-behaved eldest, marries into a posh Manhattan family, but her man-child husband will not deign to get a job. Yana, the polemically feminist middle child, marries a Bangladeshi student who had been boarding with her parents. Katya, the youngest, hooks up with a recent and unstable émigré who shoplifts underwear and speaks in hip-hop patois. Add to this a roving, polyphonic third-person narration and a number of extraneous plot devices, and The Cosmopolitans threatens to lose itself in postmodern cleverness.
Yet through the humanity of the characters and Kalman's warm, well-crafted prose, the novel succeeds in offering the reader a rich and often hilarious portrait of a 21st-century family. "They were in America now," Osip, the father, reflects, "and America was the freedom to admit you didn't know what you were doing."