Book Review: Family Happiness by Leo Tolstoy

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Tolstoy, I believe, came to me at just the right point of my life – a year which has been, by far, the most turbulent one in my entire life. After reading War & Peace earlier this year, I was convinced that there is no better guidebook to ‘better living’ than Tolstoy’s words. He, seemingly, has advise for everything under the sun.

Family Happiness begins at a lonely country house somewhere in Russia. We meet our protagonist, the seventeen year old Masha, just after her mother’s death living a secluded life with her younger sister and governess. We follow Masha’s story through 2 crucial periods of her life,both of which lead to an awakening of sorts or a sort of maturity. She is what you can imagine any teenager to be – longing for stimulation and city life, repressed by the isolation of the country. Yet this changes as she meets her late father’s friend, the middle aged Sergey Mikhaylych, which is the first crucial period. Sergey’s presence and company changes her teenage daydreams dramatically – her dreams change from one of want of stimulation to those of a desire for quiet domesticity and a life that’s more giving. As they get married, the initial months are blissful ones. That changes as she slowly tires of the quiet country living that she she had so desired. That’s when we see her enter the second crucial stage of her life – the one where her marriage begins to fail, and the love which had seemed so strong and ideal seems to fade.

picasso-soler-family

(Soler Family, Picasso. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège, Belgium)

From what I have read of Tolstoy, there seems to be some common themes running through his novels. One of those themes seem to be a search for happiness. What is happiness to Masha? At first, happiness for her is Sergey alone. Then, as she encounters the society at St. Petersburg and experiences the flattery, fame and the stimulation that it offers, that becomes happiness to her. Finally, when she leaves society behind, disillusioned and with a failed marriage, she finds herself miserable as she tries to regain back the former marital happiness to no avail.

Tolstoy suggests that there’s no point in pining away for or attempting to resurrect what can’t be brought back, but to instead find newer avenues of happiness. Things change and so do people. Once gone, these cannot revert back to the former state. So, there’s no point in mourning for a past that won’t come back.

At the same time, he seems to stress on how momentary joys are not real and are mere illusions.

It’s interesting – this whole notion of evolving happiness, for it’s human tendency to mourn for what will not come back, reminisce about what seems like the spotlessly beautiful past in hindsight. Either one can spend one’s life being miserable about what is lost or one can make an effort to move forward into the future. The choice, in the end, is what decides happiness.

Rating: 4/5

(By Misha)  

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