The Epic Drama of the Imperfect Love Story

Author Mona Simpson talks about Chekhov's "Three Years," which plays on rom-com tropes to convey just how grand a story of two people learning to appreciate each other can be.
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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

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. 

Yulia says “yes” in the least passionate way imaginable:

"I thought for a long time yesterday, Alexei Fyodorych… I accept your proposal.”

He bent down and kissed her hand, she awkwardly kissed him on the head with cold lips.

Chekhov completely undermines this moment, not just in the fumbling, awkward embrace. “I thought for a long time yesterday,” she says—a modern twist on the instantaneous “Yes!” of fairy tales.

Laptev, of course, senses Yulia’s ambivalence towards him: 

He imagined how he and his Yulia would go to the altar together, essentially complete strangers to each other, without a drop of feeling on her part, as if they had been betrothed by a matchmaker, and there was now only one consolation left him, as banal as this marriage itself, the consolation that he was not the first nor the last, that thousands of people marry that way, and that with time, Yulia would get to know him better and might come to love him.

In this moment, which is supposed to be about the beautiful singularity of a specific couple’s affection, Laptev instead takes instead consolation in the banality of all of it: the knowledge that countless others have married without love and survived, and maybe in the dim hope that she’ll one day warm to him.

Laptev accepts the fact that there might have been quite a bit missing from her feelings for him, initially. And she accepts that she is settling, and tries to enjoy what can be enjoyed. It’s a very forgiving vision; they’re both making the best of it.

In this way, “Three Years” subverts another mainstay of the traditional love story. The obstacles in the classic love stories—think Romeo and Juliet—tend to be external, lovers who can’t love because of class or clan, or because their union would violate some deep societal taboo. That’s the case in “Lady with Lapdog,” too: Gurov and Anna can’t wed because they’re both already married. The only thing keeping them from “happily ever after,” is the social stigma of divorce. In “Three Years,” though, the obstacles are all internal. Yulia simply doesn’t love him.

Their situation does not improve even after they’re married for a while. Laptev is still hurt by Yulia’s emotional distance: He notices how she writes these five-page letters to her friends, but with him all she talks about the weather and what time the next meal is. They still have utterly no verbal chemistry.

And here, Chekhov combines two other stock characters of the love story—the “other woman” and the “old flame”—in the character Polina, with whom Laptev had lived in Moscow before meeting Yulia, and who is furious about his new young wife from the country. With Polina, we witness a crackling lover’s discourse. 

"Who is it you've married?” she says. “Where were your eyes, you mad fellow? What did you see in that stupid, insignificant girl? Why, I loved you for your mind, for your soul, but that china doll wants nothing but your money!"

Laptev has a shorthand and a verbal chemistry with her that he never has with his wife. It’s fascinating to watch Polina’s exasperation at his choice, and Laptev’s inability to defend himself:

"You're happy, at any rate?" she asked.

"No."

"Does she love you?"

Laptev, agitated, and feeling miserable, stood up and began walking about the room.

"No," he repeated. "If you want to know, Polina, I'm very unhappy. There's no help for it; I've done the stupid thing, and there's no correcting it now. I must look at it philosophically. She married me without love, stupidly, perhaps with mercenary motives, but without understanding, and now she evidently sees her mistake and is miserable. I see it. At night we sleep together, but by day she is afraid to be left alone with me for five minutes, and tries to find distraction, society. With me she feels ashamed and frightened.” […] 

“And yet you love her?"

"Madly."

Here’s the woman who’s lived with him, who sustained a more equal relationship with him (she’s a serious musician who supports herself giving lessons), who can challenge his decisions—asking: why? And Laptev really has no answer, except that he’s trusting his feelings, his deepest feelings, as insane as they may be.

In this story, as in Shakespeare and as in life, everybody’s in love with somebody else. Laptev’s in love with Yulia. Polina’s in love with Laptev. Yartsev, the old scholar, whom Laptev admires, is in love with Polina. And we get to see Yulia in love for the first and only time when she and Laptev have a child. She’s at peace with the lack of sexual passion in her life:

"Tell me, by the way," asked Yartsev: "which do you love most—your husband or your baby?"

Yulia shrugged her shoulders.

"I don't know," she said. "I never was so very fond of my husband, and Olga is in reality my first love. You know that I did not marry Alexey for love. In old days I was foolish and miserable, and thought that I had ruined my life and his, and now I see that love is not necessary—that it is all nonsense."

"But if it is not love, what feeling is it that binds you to your husband? Why do you go on living with him?"

"I don't know. . . . I suppose it must be habit. I respect him, I miss him when he's away for long, but that's -- not love. He is a clever, honest man, and that's enough to make me happy. He is very kind and good-hearted. . . ."

Her child seems to make all everything else worth it, and she’s at peace. To her own credit, short of passionately loving him, Yulia keeps the terms of her promise to Laptev. “I promise you I'll be a faithful, devoted wife,” she told him before their marriage—itself not the most romantic declaration of love—but she was honest about her feelings, and she keeps her promise. But when their child dies of diphtheria, she’s utterly inconsolable. In their shared grief, we begin to see their love deepen, even as their lack of chemistry endures. Laptev defends his wife, when Polina mocks her grief. “Don’t speak of her that way, don’t reduce her, she’s just lost a child.” We can see he’s moved beyond his early infatuation. It’s now an adult, measured love, nuanced by loss. 

Yulia doesn’t fall in love with anyone else or have affairs, even though her new friends in Moscow take lovers. She initially thinks the marriage is a complete mistake and misfortune, but she’s consoled by Moscow—and there’s this lovely passage where Laptev tells her about his father beating him and what his childhood was like. You gradually see them talking to each other more. Their lack of chemistry is never completely solved, but little by little, he’s beginning to talk about his life. After all, this deepening, this ability to share a context and a sense of history, is so much of what we consider love to be, in a way.

Though neither story ends with a “happily ever after” gesture, “Lady with Lapdog” and “Three Years” end with totally different senses of what the coming challenges will be. “Lady with Lapdog” ends with its famous admission of imminent obstacles: “They both realized that the end was still far, far away, and that the hardest, the most complicated part was only just beginning.” These two, if they continue the pattern of their love, will probably have a baby (in that pre-birth control era), and then endure disgrace an a painful sundering from their positions of respectability. The end of “Three Years” suggests a softer, less dramatic sense of threat. The story closes with Yulia’s surprising declaration of affection, after Laptev returns home from a business trip.

“Why is it you haven't been for so long?" she said, keeping his hand in hers. "I have been sitting here for days watching for you to come. I miss you so when you are away!"

She stood up and passed her hand over his hair, and scanned his face, his shoulders, his hat, with interest.

"You know I love you," she said, and flushed crimson. "You are precious to me. Here you've come. I see you, and I'm so happy I can't tell you. Well, let us talk. Tell me something."

She had told him she loved him, and he could only feel as though he had been married to her for ten years, and that he was hungry for his lunch.

Now the tables have turned—Yulia seems aware of the “precious” nature of their relationship, as mild and reserved as her emotions remain. It’s as though their home, the time passing, their shared experience of love for their child and loss have finally accomplished what Laptev hoped in the beginning: that, “with time, Yulia would get to know him better and might come to love him.” She seems to, here, in her own way. But time has affected Laptev differently—here, in this moment he’s hoped for their whole relationship, he feels a variety of indifference towards his wife. He says he feels like he’s been married to her for 10 years, not three, and can only think about lunch. 

And yet the story closes with a note of possibility.

He sat on the verandah and saw his wife walking slowly along the avenue towards the house. She was deep in thought; there was a mournful, charming expression in her face, and her eyes were bright with tears. She was not now the slender, fragile, pale-faced girl she used to be; she was a mature, beautiful, vigorous woman. […] He had perhaps another thirteen, another thirty years of life before him. . . . And what would he have to live through in that time? What is in store for us in the future?

And he thought:

"Let us live, and we shall see."

“Let us live and we shall see”: the sense that life is long, and unpredictable, and that—if the tables can turn for these two—anything can happen. Perhaps their long arrangement will one day lead to something that feels to both of them like the mutual affection we call love. Or maybe it won’t ever.

It’s the moving complexity of this finale that gives me hope for the love story in the modern age. Love stories, like all stories, depend on obstacles—and, in some ways, there are fewer now than there once were. Now, for example, the marriage rates are falling. I wonder how that will affect the love story. Also, the fact that even the legal apparatus of marriage—its condition of permanence—has lost its societal force. You don’t have to get married, you don’t have to get married to have children, and you don’t have to stay married if you are married. 

Not only that, we don’t really believe in the love story anymore. That long, slow-burning progression of the classic stories—the infatuation, the yearning, the difficulty, the obstacle, the exquisite delay, and then the consummation, ultimately—does that really apply now? Half my students are on Tinder, which is a very other thing. It’s hard to say what the real narrative of love in our time will be.

And yet none of us really want that. For ourselves and our children, we’d all prefer a Jane Austen love story. So there’s that tension between our cynicism about “the right match” and yet our desire to seek it.

In a way, when we took away the obstacles, when marriage became no longer forever—it was hard on the love story. It’s more difficult to make it urgent. That’s why the obstacles of “Three Years” are modern obstacles. She wants to get out of where she is, otherwise the whole thing wouldn’t have happened. She doesn’t have to marry him, her father’s not forcing her, there’s no huge class problem. It’s hard to make it meaningful and make the stakes high enough when the biggest problem is, as it is in this story, that she’s just not that into you. But that’s exactly what Chekhov does here. He makes the love story without classical obstacles into a compelling drama that borders on the epic.

At the heart of all of it is a question, one we can wrestle with even now: Is love romance, or is it duty, compatibility, and fidelity?

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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