How does one write a modern love story that convinces? For answers, Mona Simpson, author of Casebook, turned to Anton Chekhov’s novella “Three Years,” a kind of anti-love love story that skewers many of the genre’s established tropes—the flirty banter, the unmistakable chemistry, the passionate declaration, the happily-ever-after. By contrasting the story to Chekhov’s more famous “Lady with Lapdog,” which cleaves more neatly to conventions, Simpson shows how we can write convincingly about the complexities of love and monogamy—and suggests how love stories might remain viable in the age of Tinder.
Casebook, Simpson told me, is “a love story, too, in its crooked way.” The nine-year-old narrator, Miles, has a ken for sleuthing; in chapters with titles like “Eavesdropping” and “A Walkie-Talkie,” he spies on his parents and unwittingly discovers their plan to separate. As he grows up, he continues monitoring his mother’s interactions with a new boyfriend, who may not be what he seems—and the mystery at the heart of this detective story deepens from who and what to why.
Mona Simpson is the author of My Hollywood, Off Keck Road, and Anywhere But Here, among other books; she’s been a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award and has received the Whiting Writer’s Award and a Guggenheim grant. She teaches at UCLA and Bard College, and she spoke to me by phone from her home in southern California.
Mona Simpson: The love story has incredible, perennial energy. Even in our comparatively cynical times, love still has the potential to generate a huge, propulsive narrative. Don’t we all believe, still, that there are some fits that are better than others? That some matches that feel promising and life-giving, and others that don’t? The intricacies of our romantic decisions, then—and the aftermath of our choices—are still enough to sustain countless new works of fiction.
The complications of relationships are what writers think about endlessly. (We have that in common with shrinks.) That’s what we live for, what we want to talk about. And it's also where the novel lives. You can glean intelligent, sophisticated political visions in novels, but you’re really reading for the human relationships, the new emotional flavors and ways of looking at a love story, someone's love story.
Anton Chekhov’s novella “Three Years” is a kind of anti-love story: It alludes to many of the genre’s established conventions but continually subverts them. It’s not surprising that Chekhov’s famous story “Lady with Lapdog” is the more popular of these two pieces—for one thing, “Three Years” is a much longer work—but the larger reason is that “Lady with Lapdog” cleaves to many of the genre’s expectations, while all the classical conventional elements of the love story are subverted in "Three Years."
Love stories, for instance, typically start with and give significant attention to the moment when the characters first meet—and in this first interaction, we often see their chemistry (or lack of it) in play. This is exactly what happens in “Lady with Lapdog.” We watch Gurov watching Anna from afar, and their memorable first meeting is full of subtext and rapport.
“Three Years,” though, traces the incremental progress of an imperfect fit. The putative lovers, Laptev and Yulia, have no chemistry whatsoever. Laptev is a well-off, middle-aged man visiting the provinces to take care of his dying sister. He takes turns with his sister's daughter, reading historical novels at the ill woman's bedside. He meets Yulia because her father is the buffoonish, provincial attending doctor.
Laptev falls completely in love with Yulia, but she doesn't really notice him. He’s in love with her innocence, what he perceives as her virtue, her religiosity, her youth, how she’s pretty: It’s a beautiful ode to projection. “Yulia Sergeyevna was usually silent in his presence,” Chekhov tells us. Almost the definition of the love story in prose, or in any verbal medium, is the verbal connection between the two—their banter and their talk. Here, that is mostly nonexistent. Laptev, admitting his feelings to a friend, confesses, “She never gets into conversation with me—I do not know her.”
Yulia sees him as “very serious, apparently intelligent, preoccupied with his sister’s illness.” She doesn’t like him—and not only that, she’s shocked when, without even going into the house, he proposes to her right on the stairs. She refuses him right away, and thinks back on the exchange with a kind of disgust and vague dread:
"My God! without waiting to get into the room, on the stairs," she said to herself in despair, addressing the ikon which hung over her pillow; "and no courting beforehand, but so strangely, so oddly. . . ."
Laptev is following his own romantic impulse, but he has no sense of what she would want: courtship, flowers, the man down-on-one-knee, in other words, the hallmarks of the traditional love story. Laptev gives her none of this—he doesn’t even ask her father for permission before proposing.
Despite feeling nothing for Laptev, Yulia begins to vascillate:
True, this was a man she did not love, and to marry him would mean saying goodbye forever to her dreams, her notions of happiness and married life, but would she ever meet the man she was dreaming of and fall in love with him? She was already twenty one years old. There were no suitors in town. She pictured to herself all the men she knew – officials, teachers, officers – and some were already married, and their family life struck her as empty and boring, and the others were uninteresting, colorless, unintelligent, immoral. Laptev, whatever else he was, was a Muscovite, he had finished the university, he spoke French; he lived in the capital, where there were many intelligent, noble, remarkable people, where there was noise, splendid theaters, musical evenings, excellent dressmakers, confectioners…
In other words, there’s nobody else. The men she knows in town are boring. At least he lives in Moscow, at least he knows intelligent people. There are dressmakers and theatres and musicals in Moscow. She fears becoming an old maid: She’s met several old maids, and she doesn’t want that to happen to her. This is a story about what we would call “settling.” This may strike us as a terrible reason to marry somebody you don’t love: so you can go to the big city and have a more glamorous, intellectually exciting life. And yet, Chekhov’s generosity extends to Yulia. He does not judge her. Again, this totally reverses the expectations of the love story, with its emphasis on “falling in love” with the person “of one’s dreams.” Chekhov, instead, insists that reality must be acknowledged in his character’s thinking, too. It’s unromantic, but perhaps sensible to include some aspects of practicality in our thinking about domestic relationships? But even the most conventional, stodgy people still do like to believe in love, and hesitate to talk about availability as an important factor.