about bliss

Friday, May 22, 2009

book review: tolstoy lied

Thursday morning I headed out to my friends' house to help in their large garden. They grow delicious, organic produce for the local farmers' market, and the task is becoming increasingly arduous, so I volunteered to help in exchange for some goodies. It took a little convincing T- that I'm not a fancy city girl, but someone who at one point in her life owned her very own pair of rubber shit kickers for potting and planting blueberries on the family farm. I'm a study in contradictions, I suppose, something that many people fail to recognize (because they're not really paying attention, I think. Or because I adapt to circumstances fairly well).

Who should show up to help out but N, the woman from the coffee shop who recommended that I read Rachel Kadish's novel Tolstoy Lied. I love it when my circles overlap as such. And so, under a hot sun and cerulean sky, T, N, and I chatted about this particular novel, among other things.


In attempting to write a book review, I'm honestly not sure how to proceed. I could very easily write a one paragraph summary; or a literary analysis of certain themes and/or characters; or apply some seemingly obfuscating literary, cultural, and/or philosophical theory to the narrative using pretentious jargon, but like Tracy, the protagonist/heroine of Tolstoy Lied, "I made a private vow never to say 'simulacrum' if 'cheap imitation' will suffice" (5). (although, having consumed a large-ish glass of pink prosecco left over from the aforementioned sorbet experiment, the classic vocabulary/alcohol ratio may be evidenced tonight).

My point is that I've never written a true book review. And I don't think this will be one, really. I think it will wind up being a pseudo-academic ramble with a heavy dose of personal connection. You've been warned...


I loved this novel. I loved reading it with that jolt of recognition that brings laughter, tears, pain, and pondering. At one moment in the book (I'm not going to tell you which one because, well, sometimes reading and recognition is intensely private), I had to set the book down for a good five minutes, a stunned look on my face and a epiphany racing through my being. It was that good.

The novel, subtitled "A Love Story," features Tracy Farber, a single, thirty-three year old Professor of American Literature at a prestigious Manhattan university who is in her tenure semester. Basically, this means that Tracy should be freaking out about whether she'll earn tenure (a mixed-blessing system of six year (!) apprenticeship) and be safe and settled in her career, or whether she'll be denied tenure and forced back on to the grueling job market. Tracy seems fairly comfortable with her tenure prospects, but is blindsided when she meets George. The novel tracks both her quest for tenure and her relationship with George.

Tolstoy Lied is predicated on the opening line of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (full disclosure: I've never managed to read Anna Karenina. I blame my crappy Signet edition, with the tiny pages and tinier font. Then again, I have never finished a Russian Realist novel, though I have started many...the problem must be me.). After earning tenure, Tracy plans on taking Tolstoy to task for what she perceives to be a lie. Rather, Tracy believes that happiness is not monolithic, but is various and individual. She plans on studying most all of literature to find proof of this thesis, an undertaking that in turns angers, mystifies, and delights her colleagues.

The career plot is intricate in the way that academic intrigue and suspense is--hushed meetings in closed-door offices, scowling colleagues who resent your happiness, and unbalanced graduate students pushed over the edge. I've seen them all during my twelve years in the not-so-Ivory-Tower. The relationship plot is full and richly layered--a realistic romance with George, strong relationships with work friends and those outside of work. The ideological plot is well-drawn--the conflicts between second and third wave feminists, the tugs-of-war between religious families and secular individuals.


A few scenes that made me love this book:

Tracy talking to George: "'Dealing with academic politics,' I say, 'is like reading a book while walking in a rainstorm. You crane your neck like hell to anchor the umbrella's stem while you turn pages. Step over puddles while trying to keep your eyes on the printed words. And pray you're not about to put your foot in it'" (45)

Tracy dressing for date with George: "Being a proponent of difference feminism rather than equality feminism, I am not in principle alarmed by miniskirts. But I'm accustomed to seeing a scholar in the mirror, not a pair of legs [...] I add a gauzy black scarf, which produces a more brooding, dramatic look than I'd intended; the effect, a little more Edna St. Vincent Millay than my usual, is definitely bold. On the other hand, sexual boldness didn't exactly guarantee her happiness. I exchange miniskirt and scarf for a pair of black jeans. If I were a postmodernist, I'd say Edna St. Vincent Millay never had a chance at what she wanted..." (62).

Tracy talking about her project with graduate student Elizabeth
: "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. Anybody who tries to take happiness seriously is belittled. [...] Or worse, they're called 'romance writers'--the literary world's highest insult. [...] People talk about culture wars over sexuality and race. But we're in a culture war over the nature and feasibility of happiness. And no one even acknowledges it" (160).


In reading around the internet, I stumbled on a variety of reviews, many of which described the book as "chick lit," that ubiquitous genre of city girls making strides in their careers and lookin for love whilst garbed in name brand luxury. Such novels are generally pink or purple hued objects of conspicuous consumption and feature shoes or handbags on the cover. If we were to judge Tolstoy Lied by the cover, and chick lit by the cover, this novel would *not* be categorized as such. The cover features a pretty but unadorned female face half hidden by a stack of drab colored library books (inexplicable, with the titles erased).

If the genre is defined instead by narrative qualities, we would expect a single protagonist, who tells her story through a confessional first-person persona. Romance will be an important theme and plot in the novel, but may not be the main focus. A close knit circle of friends, career trials, and an urban setting are typical qualities. As such, Tolstoy Lied definitely matches the genre.

Michael Dirda of the Washington Post begins his review with a bit of elitist snark: "Any genre, no matter how seemingly common or commercial, may serve as the foundation for a work of art. Perhaps even chick-lit." His review considers the chick-litty elements of Kadish's novel, and, by the end, suggests, rather tongue in cheek, that as a man he just might be missing the point: " When a man opens a novel so clearly oriented to women readers, he can't help but wonder if he's missing the point. Perhaps my view of Tolstoy Lied as an attempt to "transcend" the chick-lit genre is simply an aggressive, masculinist misreading."

At this point, I would refer readers back to the third of my favorite quotes in the previous section of this blog post. Dirda IS missing the point. Many points. First, that a man cannot possibly read and understand fiction coded "female." Second, that chick lit is a genre to be transcended. This is an old, old line of critique, best represented by one Nathaniel Hawthorne who bemoaned the "damned mob of scribbling women" who were outselling him at every turn. (confession: I love me some Hawthorne.)

To me, Tolstoy Lied exhibits the best that chick lit has to offer--which is the wonderful hybridity of the genre, which tries, above all, to show the chaos that ensues when women try to live out the dream of having it all. My favorite chick lit heroines, Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones, with their penchant for miniskirts and tendency towards neuroticism, do so with humor and shamelessness. Tracy Farber, though too academic stereotypey to wear a miniskirt, and too seemingly rational to be neurotic, gives another face to what might be seen as the contemporary version of The Woman Question: how to keep it all together when trying to a) decide what all you want and b) live out what all you want.


And so, I conclude this verbose and way too professorial blog entry wondering about Tracy Farber. Would she be a good colleague? Would we be friends if she worked at my University? (realizing, of course, that she is after all a fiction character, and this is a moot point. Still it helps to determine if the characters ring true.) We would certainly have interesting conversations *and* a shared conviction that happiness is not some naive emotion to be scoffed at, but rather that "happiness is the ability to live well alongside trouble," and that love, whether of literature, life, and/or another person, is "the willingness to be changed" (325). I'm sure she'd be scandalized by my fashionista ways and my tendency towards silliness. I think, though, that she'd get the discipline and the pleasure in seeking bliss:)

Works Cited

Kadish, Rachel. Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story. New York: Mariner Books, 2006.
Dirda, Michael. Review. Tolstoy Lied. The Washington Post. 10 Sept. 2006: BW15. The Washington Post Online. 22 May 2009.


  1. I loved "this verbose and way too professorial" review (and I didn't thing it was too wordy or too academic)!

    I want to rush out and get this book right now - I won't, because all my pennies are saved for moving currently, but it is going at the top of my post-move reading list.


  2. thanks, fleur! i'd offer to send you my copy, but i have a feeling i'll be a) reading it again soon and b) writing about it someday:) good luck with your move!!!

  3. Oooh, I was totally irresponsible this afternoon and finished the novel! I can't wait to talk to you about it more. Here are my two completely unanalyzed, off the cuff thoughts:

    1) boy, that book made me mad...
    2) ...in a completely awesome way. It was fun to get mad at a book because it struck a chord in me, not because the writing was irritating. I have a lot of thoughts about what went on there. good stuff!