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


I thought this book would be a romantic comedy type story. It was much deeper than I anticipated and I loved it. It is well-written with a narrative voice that sucks you in. You care about Tracey and even as she makes mistakes you find yourself rooting for her. Her premise is that Tolstoy pulled the wool over everyone's eyes and literature has followed his principle ever since he wrote in Anna Karenina(my favorite book) that "Happy families are all alike and unhappy families are unhappy in their own way." Tracey believes that American literature took this falsity to an extreme and focues on tragedy. Along her journey in the book she begins to question her thesis and she develops it as her own perceptions of love evolve. Tracey's life is changed by love and by a challenging work situation. She is up for tenure but a situation with an advisee for a dissertation puts Tracey in a spot where she has to challenge her standards of what is truly important. There is a bit of suspense in the book which I won't spoil so I will end this review of the plot. What I loved about the book is its probing of what value literature has in the contemporary world. The book is intellectual without being stuffy and the dialogue is elevated without being pretentious. I highly recommend this book! I also think it would make a great movie.


I just started the book, but I've noticed that there are no chapters. Having studied English in college I know that professors LOVE when you come up with obscure meanings for the way the author presents the book, so interested to see why she did this.Read the first part and just couldn't get into it that much. Maybe I'll check it out again another time.


"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.


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.

Bob Koch

I liked it. But it was slow, boring, and I couldn't buy the premise. Stopped at page 114. Skipped ahead to 211 and it seemed interesting again.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Oh the beautiful smart language, the satire of workplace/academic politics, the hilarious gay professional ally...Downsides: trite love descriptions, disappointing closure to romantic climax, possibly incorrect depiction of bipolar disorder? So much self doubt, and lots of obfuscation in characters' thoughts and dialogue so that there were a few passages I read more than 4 times and still didn't know what I was expected to take away from it...Overall, great smart (yet light enough) read

Cynthia Haggard

I can see why a friend of mine raves about Rachel Kadish. TOLSTOY LIED turns out to be a funny, smart and pitch-perfect rendition of office politics in an English Department in an un-named University in New York City. But even as I enjoyed reading this wry account of love and academia for a thirty-something not-yet-tenured English professor, there were a couple of problems that I feel are worth mention.The novel hit a bump for me just after the beautifully written and funny beginning, which introduces us to Tracy Farber, the thirty-three-year-old and happily-single English-professor protagonist. Ms. Kadish then does a graceful segue from Tracy’s interior monolog into academic reality when a student knocks on her door. But shortly after that the novel loses tension as her best pal Jeff appears, and engages her in a sophomoric dialogue about ties. We meet the longest-running denizens of this department (nicknamed ‘Grub’ and ‘Paleozoic’ by Tracy and Jeff), in a long passage which sounds like an unmotivated rant against Old White Men. Personally, as a woman, I feel a great deal of sympathy for Tracy’s predicament. But I couldn’t see what the point of it was. Even worse, it slowed the novel down to a crawl just when it was important to keep the pacing going to draw the reader in. It was almost like reading an information dump in an historical novel. The problem could have been solved by having this section cut into pieces and slipped into the novel so that the reader could have received the information needed while keeping the pacing tight.My other complaint is that it takes too long to meet the antagonist, all of forty-six pages according to my Kindle edition. This perhaps wouldn’t have been such a problem, except that the novel didn’t come to life until the entrance of Joanne Miller. That makes the pacing too slow between pages 14 and 46, too long for many readers. But once Joanne appears, Ms. Kadish’s writing is masterly, and I have to say I am glad I stuck through those thirty-two pages of relatively uninteresting stuff. Because from then on, TOLSTOY LIED is a dishy ride, and includes a delicious twist at the end. Four stars.


Overall, I would rate the book as predictable chick-lit. The characters are maybe different than standard fare- she's an American lit professor at a New York university, not-yet-tenured, and clashing increasingly with a colleague in the department- but meeting The Guy is inevitable.What I liked most about this book was the feminist-intellectual perspective on something as commonplace as love. She's her own person, she doesn't need a man, she has important career considerations to think about. But when the right man comes along? Priorities shift, her perspective changes, and she's forced to reexamine her conclusions about relationships and the attainability of happiness.

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