By Maria Kuznetsova
Random House, 2021
Hardcover $27.00; Kindle Edition $7.99
Genre: Fiction; Novel
Review by Rachel Houghton
Maria Kuznetsova’s Something Unbelievable is a multi-faceted tale that spans continents and generations. It is layered with themes of family, grief, loyalty, and identity. The narrative bounces between Larissa, an eighty-year-old matriarch who lives in Kiev, and Natasha, Larissa’s only granddaughter who lives with her husband and new baby in Manhattan. During their weekly Skype dates, Larissa tells Natasha the story of how her family survived relocating to the Ural Mountains during the WWII Nazi invasion of Ukraine. Larissa also begins to suspect that all is not right with Natasha’s transition to motherhood. In the end, this concern, and Natasha’s invitation to see her new one-woman play, convince Larissa to travel across the world to check up on her beloved granddaughter and meet her new great granddaughter.
Kuznetsova is an Assistant Professor of English at Auburn University where she teaches creative writing. Originally from Kiev, Ukraine, she moved to the United States as a child and later attended Duke University, the University of California Davis, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received an MFA.
Something Unbelievable explores, among other things, the space between regret and acceptance. As Grandmother Larissa says, “I have lived my life the best I could live it, but not without my share of mistakes. You have made them, too, and will continue to make them. Most of them won’t kill you.” As Larissa shares about enduring the war, she reflects on the decisions made by herself and her family—decisions made in desperation and deprivation. She does not cast judgment, but neither does she sugar-coat. Instead, there is a calm acceptance that this is what life is—a series of small decisions that lead us to the present, but don’t necessarily define who we are. Instead, we are the ones who choose who to be in this world.
One of its most compelling elements of this novel is its character-building. It would have been easy for this story to become a lovey-dovey tale of a grandmother and granddaughter relationship. And while there is deep love here, it is not a cookie-cutter rendition of familial bonds. Kuznetsova has created characters who have deep passions and deep flaws. Even though they are not perfect, they are genuine and relatable.
Larissa and Natasha are connected by blood, of course, but they are also connected by grief. Larissa’s husband recently passed, and Natasha’s parents are both gone as well. In addition, Natasha is grieving the loss of her pre-parental season of life. These griefs coupled with the losses that Larissa experienced in her past further the bond between grandmother and granddaughter. We are all aware of the challenges of virtual communication, but even though much of their conversation happens through computers, there is a depth to their relationship. They enjoy an easy banter, but they do not shy away from hard topics or questions. This bond is further cemented as Larissa shares her families struggles to survive WWII. This confession offers Larissa peace and gives Natasha another perspective of her grandmother.
These shared tensions coupled with vast yet intimate virtual spaces offer Larissa and Natasha the room to explore their respective identities. There is the tension of belonging to two different countries—Ukraine and America. The tension of carrying the roles of mother, daughter, wife, mistress, actress, and friend. There are tensions of class, past, heritage, distance, loyalty, and grief. Through the simple act of weekly conversations, both Larissa and Natasha slowly begin to discover one another. This vantage we are given onto the gradual, simultaneous discovery of persons bound by blood, by one another, but still alien to one another, is an especially poignant and moving element of this story. Something Unbelievable begs the questions: What makes a person who they are? How can a person be good and bad at the same time? Can mistakes lead us to places of wholeness? Is there beauty to be found in suffering?
If you are looking for a thought-provoking novel with unforgettable, complex characters and a storyline that will make you cry and laugh, this is it.
Rachel Houghton graduated in 2022 from the University of Alabama Birmingham with a Masters in English. Her poetry has appeared in Aura and the Vulcan Historical Review, and her fiction can be found in The Great Lakes Review.
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