Happy Is as Happy Does

Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story By Rachel Kadish Houghton Mifflin, 336 pages, $24.

Amid the otherwise maudlin confessions of her 1994 best-seller, “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” (also published by Houghton Mifflin), Elizabeth Wurtzel stumbled on a happy insight: Tolstoy’s famous first line from “Anna Karenina” — “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — is a crock. “He’s got it totally wrong,” Wurtzel observed, “completely ass-backward. Happiness is infinite in its variety, and happy people, happy families, can find their joy in so many different ways.”

Rachel Kadish opens her second novel with a similar observation. If we take Tolstoy at his word, she reasons, then it means that a person must be unhappy in order to be interesting. And if that is true, other conclusions follow. “Happy people have no stories you might possibly want to hear. In order to be happy, you must whitewash your personality; steamroll your curiosities, your irritations, your honesty and indignation. You must shed idiosyncratic dreams and march in lockstep with the hordes of the content….” Happiness, it seems, could never be the stuff of fiction.

That prejudice bedevils Kadish’s narrator, Tracy Farber, a 30-something professor of English at a Manhattan college who is on the hunt for examples of happiness in the American literary tradition. From Tracy’s perspective, the subject is at once neglected and scarce: She finds it hard to uncover a plotline in American fiction “that doesn’t make you want to jump off a bridge,” and she worries that talking about happiness in academic circles is “career suicide.” Still, she wonders, “Can the American story have an ending that’s both honest and happy?”

The question, posed to the canon, quickly becomes her own when the unmarried, stay-at-home-on-Saturday-nights heroine meets George Beck, an eligible bachelor intent on building a lasting relationship with that special someone. Tracy — intelligent, quirky and kind — clearly fits the bill, and though George, a recovering evangelical Christian who has recently lost his mother and no longer speaks to his devout Canadian father, undoubtedly has some “issues,” who in Manhattan doesn’t? He is handsome, funny, thoughtful and sincere. He even hints that he would convert to Judaism to be with the right woman, though to the secular Tracy this is the least of his redeeming features.

Through the whole of part one, the two speed through romantic dinners, soul-searching conversations and great sex. But when George pops the question after a mere two months, Tracy is left gasping for air. Her friends Hannah (married with children) and Yolanda (hipster actress; never without a date, but forever searching) advise her to stay the course, but when she tells George that she needs more time, the relationship falters. Part two ends with what screenwriters would call a “plot-point,” sending the narrative action — and the two protagonists — off in different directions. In part three, Tracy and George move toward a resolution that is mutually honest. A final coda brings the story to its inevitably happy conclusion. This is, after all, a “romantic comedy,” and so it gives nothing away to say that Tracy is never seriously tempted to throw herself before a train.

Neither is the reader. True, the novel’s subplot, which follows Tracy’s tortuous quest for tenure, tends at times toward the tedious (as a rule, academic politics are interesting only to those involved, and frequently not even to them). Moreover, the book’s conceit that the subject of happiness is professionally dangerous rings false at a time when “happiness studies” are flourishing on American campuses. (The largest undergraduate course in the country, currently taught at Harvard, is dedicated to the subject.)

Yet the book as a whole confirms that Kadish is a young writer of developing talents, capable of fresh humor, keen insights and passages of lyrical beauty — like the following, which stirred my professor’s soul: “Books have a sound, too — turn their pages for enough hours and years and you start to rely on it, just as people who live by the shore assimilate the rhythm of the waves: the sweep and ripple marking the end of a page, a sound that seems to be made by the turning of your thoughts rather than the movement of your hand.” Tracy comes to believe, as she notes, that “deep contentment is as individual as a footprint.” She is convinced — and the sound of the turning of these pages is meant to demonstrate — that the stories of the happy can be as interesting, and as honest, as the those of the unhappiest families.

That is no doubt true, and, arguably, Tolstoy would have agreed. For think of the other great narrative that dominates “Anna Karenina” — that of Kitty and Levin. The scene recounting Levin’s joy at Kitty’s acceptance of his marriage proposal is one of the most moving depictions of happiness in all of literature. But Tolstoy knew that such bliss can never last, and so the couple struggles on through the second half of the book, searching for meaning and purpose together and finding, if not happiness, then something like it. Tellingly, the novel ends with their story, not Anna’s, and with the birth of their son, belying the fiction of the book’s very first line.

Tolstoy, then, did not really lie. But many of his contemporaries surely did, constructing narratives of happy families that sounded and ended the same. The literary convention of the happy ending, in fact, invented in the 18th century, came into its own during Tolstoy’s 19th, when Victorian novelists — think of Dickens — invariably ended their works happily ever after. The convention lives on in popular culture, driving those countless romance novels and Hollywood films that forever fade into the sunset. If Tracy is hard pressed to find a plotline that doesn’t end tragically, she doesn’t know where to look.

Kadish’s love story plays with these sunnier genres. And though, with its girl-meets-boy account of love successfully pursued and attained, it resembles them more than she perhaps intends, the book contains an essential caveat that sets it apart: Happiness, like love, is hard work, requiring constant vigilance, negotiation, courage and commitment.

At the end of the novel, Tracy is surprised by her newfound faith that “happiness can be built up, brick by brick, out of argument,” which she describes as “the most Jewish idea in the history of Jewish ideas.” Jewish or not, it is a faith that we could all stand to cultivate as we struggle to build happy lives.

Darrin M. McMahon is a professor of history at Florida State University and is the author, most recently, of “Happiness: A History” (Atlantic Monthly Press).

This story "Happy Is as Happy Does" was written by Darrin McMahon.

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