Kadish’s second (after From a Sealed Room, 1998) is a conventional modern romance, complete with life lessons, wry comedy and a supporting cast of best friends.
Lines like “dating is an existential insult,” however, make it a bit brainier than the genre norm. Tracy Farber, 33, is a professor of American literature at a New York university. Single, ambitious and up for tenure, she shares her daily dilemmas with colleague Jeff (gay), married Hannah (pregnant) and actor Yolanda (also single, with a serially broken heart). Then Tracy meets George, a funny Canadian who has escaped his Christian fundamentalist upbringing, and they fall in love. All’s well until George, after less than two months of dating, proposes marriage. Tracy agrees, but is plagued by growing feelings of uncertainty and panic. When she confronts George, he breaks off the relationship. Office politics, in particular problems with a sick colleague and an unstable grad student, make for a less compelling subplot in a novel that’s already slightly too long. Tracy also considers her next research project: an examination of happiness in literature—hence the title (Tolstoy having famously lumped together and dismissed happy characters in favor of the distinctly more interesting unhappy ones). Is now-heartbroken Tracy destined to be a tragic heroine, or will she get a happy ending? Kadish brings a sprightly intelligence to bear on this familiar scenario, lending it fresh charm as well as some shrewd emotional insights, although not much suspense.
No real surprises, but some essential satisfactions.