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Honest and Happy?

Imagine a book about books. Imagine reading about reading. And then you will begin to appreciate Rachel Kadish’s new novel, Tolstoy Lied {Houghton Mifflin, $24). Kadish’s story is narrated by Tracy Farber—Jewish, single, thirty something, and a professor of American literature whose views on love stem more from her reading than from her life experience. In her academic life, Tracy is struggling to prove a thesis that becomes personally relevant as well: can a story, her story, have an ending that’s “both honest and happy”? Was Tolstoy accurate when he wrote that “all happy families are alike”—or can happiness be as interesting as unhappiness?

It is Tracy’s relationship with her new boyfriend George that puts this thesis to the test. Unlike Tracy, who is quite sure of her identity, George is struggling to define himself, independent of the strictures of his fundamentalist Christian family. At first, their relationship progresses smoothly and joyously—until certain residual effects of George’s upbringing begin to tear at her connection to him.

As a feminist who had thrived as single woman, Tracy is forced to consider what she wants from love against a panoply of successful and unsuccessful relationships— those of her friends but also, in a narrative flourish, of all her fellow New Yorkers and even of all of American literature. Meanwhile, as her tenure hearing looms, the political machinations of her colleagues in the English department compel her to re-examine her professional life, especially her secret project on happy endings. Kadish skillfully weaves all these threads together in a climax that hinges on the truth of Tolstoy’s famous proclamation It is the agenda of Kadish as much as Tracy to prove Tolstoy wrong, but first Tracy has to rediscover herself beneath all the -isms and academic theories that had always buttressed her sense of self.

The strengths and weaknesses of Kadish’s ideas-centered approach are clear from the beginning of the novel. The reader learns who Tracy is, for example, in a long introduction in which she explains herself and her contented solitude in a style better suited for her academic lectures. Not long after, Tracy declares that George could be “the one”—but all the reader has seen of their togetherness are a few symbolic moments of awkwardness, confession, and some intimacy. The effect is as intense as it is distancing; the reader, all at once, learns everything about Tracy and George, but doesn’t connect to them emotionally or root for them as a couple. But as the plot gains momentum, the many layers of meaning with which Kadish shades everything and the well-executed grounding of this novel in the theories of American literature make the story far more powerful than the narrative itself would suggest. The ideas win out over the plot in the end, but taken together they make for a deeply enriching reading experience that, surprisingly, teaches us as much about how to read as about how to love.

Tammy Hepps is a software developer living in New York.