The canon of iconic first lines is a pretty select one. We're talking opening sentences that are so well known a person doesn't need to have read the book to be able to quote them. Among them I'd include Genesis, "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen, "A Tale of Two Cities" and "David Copperfield" by Charles Dickens, and "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy.
That last has become a sop to survivors of dysfunctional families everywhere: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The only problem? It isn't true, says Rachel Kadish, in her new novel Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story. "Nothing against Tolstoy. I'm an admirer. I simply happen to believe he's responsible for the most widely quoted whopper in world literature," her heroine Tracy Farber, a 30-something literature professor, opines. "Happiness, according to this witticism of Tolstoy's, is not a plant with spikes and gnarled roots; it is a daisy in a field of a thousand daisies. It is for lovers of kitsch and those with subpar intelligence."
Tracy is out to prove Tolstoy wrong – after she gets tenure. Because she's no fool: "Talking about happiness is career suicide." Every semester she struggles to get in just one novel whose plotline won't inspire thoughts of suicide in her students. Tracy is happy with her single life as the novel opens – content to be a devoted friend and a good teacher. She's the kind of professor undergrads dream about. She's devoted to her advisees, especially Elizabeth, a brilliant, eager-to-please Dickinson scholar who's this close to finishing her dissertation. She even scorns the excessive verbiage beloved by holders of PhDs everywhere. "I made a private vow never to say 'simulacrum' if 'cheap imitation' will suffice.... Never to say 'debative quality' when I mean 'argument,' or hedge with 'it might be said' when what I mean is, I believe." (Don't you just want to hug her?)
Then Tracy meets George, a Canadian who works for a nonprofit that fights overcrowding in schools. George is also on a quest for happiness, having broken away from his fundamentalist Christian family after his mother's death. And then Tracy finds herself enmeshed in departmental politics when her colleague Joanne begins interfering with Elizabeth's thesis in a way Tracy finds reprehensible.
Kadish's insistence that happiness deserves serious consideration makes a nice change from the bleakness and suffering that's the default mode of many literary heavyweights. But while Tracy derides romances that end with the "false Happiness in Perpetuity that wraps up Dickens novels. You know – marriage between two characters who can be expected to go cross-eyed with contentment and stay that way until they die," it soon becomes apparent that "Tolstoy Lied" is hewing pretty closely to this format.
The cast of characters is also familiar: There's the love interest, the gay male friend, the pregnant best friend, and the "free spirit" other best friend whose man troubles keep things lively. George's dad is the one-note caricature that seems to be a synonym for "fundamentalist Christian" in much of literature these days. And Joanne's malice is never explained in a way that makes sense. Benign neglect and indifference were all I ever encountered from even the most burned-out professor – they were too busy with lives of their own to plot to submarine a student's fledgling career (especially someone else's advisee).
That said, readers probably will have goofy grins on their faces when reading the early stages of Tracy and George's romance – Kadish excels at making George somebody worth loving, rather than just the handsome bank account that serves as the male lead in many so-called "chick lit" novels. And any bookworm will welcome the discussions of literature that periodically pepper the chapters.
Finally, it's impossible not to root for a heroine who chooses to fight for the idea of happiness, rather than whine endlessly about her own troubles. "People 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.... 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."
Now there's a war cry you don't often hear from modern romances, which frequently insist that "Happily Ever After" means "Getting Everything I Want."
So while Kadish may not have succeeded in her stated goal of giving gravitas to the happy ending, she does manage to inject some needed philosophical heft in the urban romance, nonetheless.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.