The Life Room, Jill Bialosky’s second novel, reimagines Tolstoy’s societydriven epic, Anna Karenina, as a bildungsroman. Though the plot parallels the sordid events surrounding the affair between the troubled Anna and the dashing Count Vronsky, the best moments in Bialosky’s book concern the interior life of Eleanor Cahn, a literature professor, wife, and mother in her late thirties who has yet to grow up. Her existence may seem like a privileged mix of office hours, dinner parties, and Central Park playdates, but “her true desires,” Bialosky writes, have remained “locked up in a suitcase.” After the fateful appearance of her childhood sweetheart, Stephen, during a trip to Paris to deliver a conference paper on (what else?) Anna Karenina, Eleanor returns to New York filled with ennui, wondering whether those concealed emotions might now be “spilling over.” Through flashbacks, Bialosky reveals Eleanor’s transformation from a person for whom family and career constitute little more than a “life room”—a place of “fantasy and imagination . . . filled with one’s sole associations”— into one humbled by a world beyond her control.
Though Eleanor is unconvincing in her profession—she has a rudimentary understanding of Romanticism and seems unaware that her daring thesis, which purports that Levin is the hero of Tolstoy’s novel, is already common knowledge in literature departments (in reality, it was posited by Thomas Mann in 1939)—the difficulties she encounters as a well-todo woman in post-9/11 America are engaging. She and her friends are deeply affected by the repercussions of these events yet easily dismiss them; Bialosky showcases their mundane concerns and talk-show hyperbole in several chapters of e-mail correspondence and diary entries. After witnessing a fire likely caused by a terrorist attack, Eleanor carelessly writes: “I find myself smoking in Paris . . . though I rarely smoke at home. Again, it makes me feel slightly dangerous and reckless, not just the cigarettes but the feeling of anonymity and the endless possibilities it gives birth to.”
The emblem of Anna Karenina, however, fails to create sufficient tension. Stephen is not the debonair and successful Vronsky; he is described as “puzzling,” secretive, unsettling, and “pleading.” It is hard to understand what Eleanor sees in him, especially when her heart-surgeon husband, who embodies many of the count’s better traits, receives her with unending patience and love. Even if the male characters weren’t reversed, the sadness Eleanor feels at the prospect of divorce wouldn’t correspond to the madness that Anna endures. Had Bialosky resisted modeling her novel on Karenina, her readers might have happily glimpsed the world through Eleanor’s eyes—one blue, the other green, “as if she were split down the center, divided”—and The Life Room could have had a life of its own.