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


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.


"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.


Had I not been feeling terrible for 4 days of my spring break with ear infections in both ears, I probably would not have finished this book. Although, in Kadish's defense, the chances of me falling in love with a book immediately after reading my most-loved Franny and Zooey are slim to none. Basically, I felt like she's just recently realized that love/feminism/companionship/art/religion are- at times- paradoxical, and- at most times- messy. It's all well and good that she's realized these things and fit them into a neat story about her falling in love on my current stomping ground of NYC, but I'd much rather have read a book by Salinger... who had discovered these nuances of life long ago, has meditated upon them for some time, and writes about how to (or how not to) move forward in a life full of contradictions.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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


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.

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.


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.


This was the first of three books I read last fall that I picked to read together that had a feminist theme. I had really high hopes for this one but ultimately felt like it turned out to be quite predictable. It was almost as if it tried not to be then the author got tired and just gave in.


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.

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