Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story

ISBN: 0618546693
ISBN 13: 9780618546695
By: Rachel Kadish

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About this book

Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” To Tracy Farber, thirty-three, happily single, headed for tenure at a major university, and content to build a life around friends and work, this celebrated maxim is questionable at best. Because if Tolstoy is to be taken at his word, only unhappiness is interesting; happiness must be as placid and unmemorable as a daisy in a field of a thousand daisies.Having decided to reject the petty indignities of dating, Tracy focuses instead on her secret project: to determine whether happiness can be interesting, in literature and in life, or whether it can be -- must be -- a plant with thorns and gnarled roots. It's an unfashionable proposition, and a potential threat to her job security. But Tracy is her own best example of a happy and interesting life. Little does she know, however, that her best proof will come when she falls for George, who will challenge all of her old assumptions, as love proves to be even more complicated than she had imagined. Can this young feminist scholar, who posits that "a woman's independence is a hothouse flower -- improbable, rare, requiring vigilance," find happiness in a way that fulfills both her head and her heart?Love may be the ultimate cliché, but in Rachel Kadish’s hands, it is also a morally serious question, deserving of our sober attention as well as our delighted laughter.

Reader's Thoughts


Probably the best, most honest, closest-to-my-experience book about love I have ever read. She captures moments that are extremely funny in way that feels utterly real, genuine, and natural. Despite the flatness of some of the characters it feels like a clever person's memoir rather than fiction.


2-1/2 stars. I like that much of the book seems to be mocking academia and the dominant premise that happiness is uninteresting. "Every day brilliant people, people smarter than I, wallow in safe tragedy and pessimism, shying from what really takes guts: recognizing how much courage and labor happiness demands."

Superstition Review

The moment I fell in love with the novel Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story by Rachel Kadish would be halfway through page six. Before that point the novel was well-written commentary on literature critiquing as delivered by (if it can be said without unnecessary repetition) an intelligent and sarcastic narrator (as both so often go together that they become one). But her passionate defense of books, and her description of how an addiction forms for the sound of pages turning much the way growing up by the sea attunes one to the constant waves, was my first glimpse at what lay beneath the snarky surface.One hundred or so pages later, I realized that revealing character depths is one of the novel’s strengths. To borrow the Shrek metaphor, people are like onions and the novel peels them away one layer at a time. Yolanda, introduced as a man-catching appearance-focused woman, carries herself with devastated beauty as an actress and notably provides sage advice to Tracy in her relationship with George after an almost-argument. Jeff, a hardened cynic, is willing to abandon academia entirely for the man he loves and ruin his cultivated reputation for his friendship with Tracy. Elizabeth, a slip of a graduate student, breaks into the library after hours to continue her research. The novel is not without surprises because the well-developed characters are full of them.It is not only their depths but their flaws that render Kadish’s characters lifelike. Before George revealed his “traditional” views on how he believes a woman should want a family and should prioritize her career above that family, the romance between him and Tracy seemed unreal with them bonding at first sight and quickly progressing to in-depth conversations and amazing sex. Seeing a flaw that could draw Tracy’s ire was the first moment I believed that this relationship between them could be real – anyone can be perfectly charming until you get to know them, and it’s when the charm wears off that you find out how much you really like them.Despite much of its plot being a play upon borrowed romantic conventions, I’m not sure I would be so quick to classify this as a romance novel; while I can’t deny there’s romance, I see it more as a novel about relationships, not just the one Tracy has with George but with everyone else around her. Much of the novel functions according to Gardner’s definition of metafiction or a deconstruction, in that it takes language and ideas apart to examine their inner workings. The typical idea of a romantic ending, which much like a comedy ends with a marriage, is sporked by Kadish without mercy, as well as American literature’s use of tragedy and its avoidance of happiness in Tracy’s discovery of the spiked plant she comes to call her happiness. It casts doubts on traditional romantic ideals (If a guy gives a girl who hates flowers roses, is that really romantic? Should a woman be expected to prioritize family over career, and pressured into doing so?). But when it comes to the romance novel’s purpose, to make the reader fall in love not only with a person but with the idea of romance itself, Kadish succeeds in a manner worthy of worship.By Sarah Anderson

Holly Lebowitz Rossi

"Feminism taught me how to critique the world; it didn't teach me how to live in it." So reflects the main character in this beautifully written, thoughtful book about how love changes people, whether they like it or not. A really wonderful read.


Note to self: Write something longer about how this is probably one of my ten favourite things I've read in the last few years. Stunningly great, transcendent character work, and more


This is a surprisingly good book. The protagonist is a professor, single, and looking for love. The setting is Manhattan, the literature department of a university. Many issues that are not usually addressed are introduced through the interesting, diverse characters. Setting and physical descriptions are subtly and adroitly blended into the action to convey a realistic feel. The author is a literary professional writing on a grant so all the technical bases are covered. (I did finally finish the book.)


I am giving this book three stars for the writing. The writing is very educated, you can tell the author got a good education on how to write a book but not particularly a talent. Thus to me this story she is trying to sell is masked by good writing, take away the writing and the story is a flop, nothing new, nothing profound. It feels as though the author is trying way to hard to inrtoduce something new and fresh about love and relationships, yet it fails. Honestly, I did not find anything interesting about the main charecters love affair. In fact I was more enthralled with the "heroine's" relationships at work, that could of been a nice story. There was no love in this book, it was just another guy and another girl. Actually, I think that everything around the main character was more interesting then the main character herself.

Bethany Campbell

For those who are slightly disenchanted with Disney's happy-ending culture, but remain uncomfortable with all-out cynicism. . .Kadish's thesis, that contrary to Tolstoy's famous opener in Anna Karenina, NOT all happy people are happy in the same way, is played out in an unexpected fashion as the book progresses. This is an intelligent novel, with literary allusions that are enjoyable, but not too heavy for a casual read. It is insightful and thought-provoking without being heavy handed or overly dense. An excellently executed work, well worth reading.


Ugh, does not want!Pretentious, condescending pseudo-intellectual crap. Basically chick-lit, but not even that well-written. Kadish attempts to gain ballast by spewing her sophomoric word-vomit from the mouth of an "I'm way cooler than this petty academia" professor whose very "I'm way cooler"-ness defeats the purpose of the whole critique. A great read for people who really wish they were reading pulp but want to look smart.


3.5 starsInteresting premise and some funny and wise lines. The plot itself was OK, but I found parts of the novel irritating. First, the novel has no chapters, only parts. True, there are breaks in the prose--but why no chapters? And early in the book the stream of consciousness style seemed contrived to allow the author to make witty comments on various topics--especially about the nature of dating and love. But in the end it was an interesting read and showed insight into the world of academia. If you're not connected with academia, however, I'd skip this one.


This book kind of did a number on me. I finished it on the last day of a trip, when I was feeling sort of tired and a little sick. So: reading, but with vulnerabilities. The novel's heroine is a literature professor who wants to debunk Tolstoy's line from Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." She says that would mean that "a person must be unhappy in order to be interesting." So she tells us her engaging love story, which is really very well done. It feels so true -- exciting but not romanticized. A fleshy sort of love story, with the realness intact. She follows it past the early euphoria, through rough patches and a separation and back to equilibrium. So as in life, it's a big old log flume ride, and you go for it, but spend a lot of time wondering if it's worth the stress. In the meantime, there's great stuff about academic politics and good secondary characters. Just an enjoyable read.The problem for me is that she begins as a happy and contented single woman. Not shunning romantic encounters but not actively seeking them either. Good naturedly fending off efforts by friends and family to get her paired off. She got my hopes up that we might somehow return to happy singlehood, instead of ending up with, as Bridget Jones calls them, the smug marrieds. Which is where everybody always ends up, now and forever, world without end amen. She winds up her story with the "what I've learned" chapter, which she has earned. But there's an air of "now that I love, I'm doing life's real work" that grates. Her lover's proposal of marriage represented an invitation to "stop watching the mess of human desire from the shoreline."Sigh. I know, it said "love story" right on the cover. What did I expect? I'm such a sponge -- I absorb all these absurd messages and take them to heart. What am I, 13 years old? I can't think for myself? But these repeated demonstrations of how I am living but half a life in my singledom are so very, very tiring. Love can kiss my ass.

Catherine Siemann

Ow. This academic novel cut too close to the bone, what with the internecine struggles and the insinuation that having a nervous collapse will harm your academic career less than taking too long to defend your dissertation (um, see what I mean?). Her academic colleagues seemed pretty stereotypical, although definitely recognizable archetypes.I've seen it described as smart chick-lit, and I think I resent the notion that any novel dealing with a single woman is inherently "chick-lit" -- paraphrasing the Tolstoy reference of the title, "All happy families are alike and all novels about single women are chick-lit"? I know that's a genre many women enjoy, and I have no problem with that (I quite liked Bridget Jones, back in the day), but it seems like an easy dismissal. So men never worry about getting married and like that? This also supports the protagonist Tracy Farber's contention that it's not considered intellectually respectable to look at happiness in literature -- that it just gets dismissed offhand.I enjoyed this book, but it was a reminder for me to stay far away from novels of academia until I'm viewing them from a safer distance.


When the book opens with the lie by Tolstoy it helped me realize the truth within it. Kadish helped me put into words some of the feelings I felt, and still feel, about my last relationship. He was a horse and I was a llama and that about summed up why we are no longer together. The last paragraph also bespoke to my own mentality on life right now. Take life for what is is a shock, dont prepare yourself for what may happened when the variables are far to numerous.


I think I am sick of hearing about the problems the intellectual elite can have in apprehending genuine emotions. Also a book that opens with an ill-disguised bit of apologia for its own content - insinuating that if you're not interested in reading about how shiny and important the author's love affair is, you're blinded by hidebound and feeling-phobic critical standards - is not a book that I'm going to finish, much less enjoy.

Katherine Marple

From the opening pages: "For people who claim to want happiness, we Americans spend a lot of time spinning yarns about its opposite. Even the optimistic novels end the minute the good times get rolling... Let me be clear: some of my best friends are tragic novels. But someone's got to call it like it is: Why the taboo? What's so unspeakable about happiness?" Tolstoy Lied was impressively honest. Rachel Kadish brilliantly pulls out the American obsession of unhappiness/ tragedy/ injustice/ wavering state of mankind- and she pokes fun at it, dissects it and reveals its reasons. Through her main character, Tracy, I discovered why I love love and also why it hurts so much, even when I'm "happy." No matter what I do, I will always be sacrificing something in order to keep something else. There is never a PERFECT solution to anything. However, with love, when considered cautiously and carefully, it is totally worth all of the extra crap that comes along with it. I was highly impressed, also, with Kadish's use of vocabulary and intellectual conversations between the characters. I love being smart, and I was not let down while reading the thoughts of each of the characters. Brilliantly written and very inspirational. If you're a love of books like I am, or even like Tracy is, then you will love this story too.

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