Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story by Rachel Kadish
Tolstoy Lied is Kadish's second novel. The premise of this novel can be taken from a quote in the book, "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). The main character, Dr. Tracy Farber, is a single 33-year old professor at a university in New York.
In the beginning of the novel Tracy is focused on her career--putting together her tenure packet, applying for fellowships, and an "ambitious" writing project where she claims Tolstoy is a liar about happy people. Tracy believes that in the world of literature scholars celebrate the works of tragedy and dismiss works with a even a hint of a happy ending, which affects writers who follow the status quo.
From the title of the book and the blurb this was purported to be the main idea, Tracy deciding she can be happy without marriage and kids though society insists that's what is needed for a happy life, which essentially stereotypes all happy endings.
This isn't really what the novel is about. In fact, Tracy's life appears to be boring and empty before she meets her love interest George. And I don't mean that Tracy was not invested in her career and was not passionate, it's just that there was rarely time for her big happiness project to develop before she turned into a typical romance novel heroine.
Tracy was reduced to a blubbering, whiny female too quickly. It is hard to buy that she was independent and happy to be single when she thought about her friends getting married and her being single several times early in the novel and met George soon after. Tracy is human of course, so she wasn't going to be oblivious to her marital status, but the grand happiness theory was barely explored before she met her man.
Tolstoy's name in the title convinced me this book was going to be more profound than other romance novels. Not so. It was formulaic. The meeting, the get together, the break up, the reunion. The really interesting element was not the "love story", but Tracy's workplace. There was a lot of cattiness and politics going on at her job, which included a very heartbreaking situation with a mentally ill graduate student. Those aspects of the story were worth analyzing and feeling personally offended over.
For instance--If you know that someone at your job is doing something very sinister, in a manipulative and difficult-to-prove manner, how would you handle it? Tracy was dealing with a professor in her department that was manipulative like Iago from Othello. It was disturbing what the woman did to Tracy and to her advisee Elizabeth. The professor who did her dirt and ruined people's lives out of spite did it with no remorse; she was a relentless snake. It was heinous what she did to Tracy and Elizabeth.
Back to the love story part. The problem with Tracy and George was that they weren't in sync when they got engaged. Tracy didn't even realize she was being proposed to when George "asked" her to marry him. It took them several months to get back together once Tracy had the courage to admit she felt he was rushing them into marriage. George was a nice enough guy, but he had some deep insecurities about his father and his ability to be head of the household for his own family. But in the end, he came back to Tracy and she welcomed him with open arms.