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


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."


"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So said Tolstoy. Tracy Farber is going to prove him wrong. Just as soon as she gets tenure. Or maybe getting married will get in the way. Severe interdepartmental strife in her Manhattan university's English department may get in the way of all of these plans.In the end, "Peple misunderstand happiness. They think it's the absence of trouble. That's not happiness, that's luck. Happiness is the ability to live well alongside trouble. No two people have the same trouble, or the same way of metabolizing it. Q.E.D.: No two happy people are happy in the same way. Even Tolstoy was afraid to admit this, and I don't blame him. 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."Rachel Kadish is an amazing writer. I am definitely searching out her short fiction and her earlier novel, "From a Sealed Room" even though I don't know they could measure up to this compelling book.


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


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.


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.

Lesley K

WONDERFUL. This book is an incredible love story. But not because it is about love. Because it is just as much NOT about love as anything else. It is about professions and friends taking as much of our energy and anxiety and guts as our intimate relationships do.


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.


This book follows a young English professor as she tries to get tenured and sort through her feelings on love and happiness. The plot got weaker throughout the book (too melodramatic), but I enjoyed the commentaries on literature and a look into the world of professors.

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.


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 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.

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.


The "lie" that Tolstoy allegedly told, which gives this novel its title, is the famous first sentence of "Anna Karenina": "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Rachel Kadish, in setting out to disprove this obviously false statement, declares her aim of writing a book that takes happiness and love seriously. Her heroine, Tracy Farber, states the thesis on page 160 (it's also the thesis of an ambitious academic study Tracy aims to write): "It's as if our whole literary tradition, which has been unsparing on the subjects of death, war, poverty, et cetera, has agreed to keep the gloves on where happiness is concerned. And no-one has addressed it. I mean, shame on us all -- readers, critics, writers. Anyone who tries to take happiness seriously is belittled. The writers who pen happy endings risk getting labeled 'regionalists' which is like a paternal pat on the head and a nudge back to the children's table. Or worse, they're called 'romance writers' -- the literary world's worst insult." These words speak strongly to me because I too have written a book that tries to address love seriously. It's called 'Romance Language' and will be published in October 2009 by Portals Press.


In "Anna Karenina," Leo Tolstoy opens with the statement, "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.""Nonsense!" replies Rachel Kadish's protagonist, a 33-year old assistant professor of English."Oh yeah?" says the rest of the novel. "I'll show you! Sort of."There is a lot to like about this book, which aggressively champions happiness and love, albeit through the words of a woman who declares (at 33, mind you) that she's given up on romance. Unsurprisingly, she then meets a man whom she considers to be not her type with whom she proceeds to fall in love. The book adheres to the standard, get-em-together, tear-em-apart, kiss-and-make-up at the end plot, but the relationship between Tracy and George is really quite stunningly well-rendered, witty, and a great deal of fun.And the book as a whole is laugh-aloud funny. Kadish wreaks merry hell with academia and theatre with hilarious results. However, the book skews hip-young-New-Yorker, and those that are not hip, young, New Yorkers are pretty much reduced to the stumbling blocks that annoy and/or hinder Tracy and make George act like a twit. And possibly as a nod to the maligned Tolstoy of the title, not everything goes Tracy's way outside of the romance. Personally, I didn't care for that aspect of the book. If an author is going to stake out happiness as a means of narrative rebellion against capital-L Literature, it feels rather cowardly to deal the heroine such an inexplicable blow. But ultimately, the relationship between Tracy and George was enough to sustain my enthusiasm, with an ending that's not "and they lived happily ever after," though really, there's no reason why they shouldn't.


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.

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