This book has it all. Set in late 19th century Russian society, there are love affairs and scandals, philosophical debates, and political discussions. Through the eyes and lives of seven central characters we experience love in its different stages. For the moment, I’ll focus on Anna herself, as the book is titled for her. She is a highly respected woman of society, and is of course very beautiful. She is not happily married, though does love her son immensely. She falls in love with another man, Vronsky, and enters into an extramarital affair with him while society (and her husband for the most part) pretend not to notice. She is fed up with the secrecy, and decides to leave her husband for her lover…. and well, things don’t end very well for her. Scorned by society, she drives herself mad with jealousy and insecurity.
But as I said, there are seven main characters – including Anna, her husband Karenin and her lover Vronsky. We also get to know Anna’s brother Stepan Oblonsky, his wife Dolly, Dolly’s sister Kitty, and Stepan’s very good friend (and Kitty’s childhood friend) Levin. Among this mix of people there are affairs that are forgiven, affairs that end badly, and love that shines like none other. Levin provides most of the philosophical questions, as he is an honest, hardworking country man determined to discover the meaning of his life, especially as it relates to the land, his family, his love, his questions regarding religion and faith, and his country.
I am so glad I finally read this book. I’ve wanted to for such a long time, but I’ve been scared of it. It is huge. My translated copy is 838 pages, including notes. But I quickly came to realize a few things: It flows incredibly well. It never drags, and I never once thought “Man, I’ve got 600 more pages to go!”. It is broken up into Eight Parts, which are then divided up into quick short chapters. So it is easy to find places in which to set the book down when needed. I was also scared because it is Russian Lit. I don’t really know much about Russian Lit, Russian history, etc. I was afraid of being continually confused. Thankfully, this book is what I call “a two bookmark” book. One bookmark to keep my place in the text, and one bookmark to keep my place in the notes. And the notes for this are more than adequate. They help with obscure references to other texts, Russian history, and notes on what was happening in Russia as Tolstoy was writing this masterpiece. Also, all the Russian names with all their consonants all over the place seemed daunting as well. The translators thought ahead on this as well, and right at the front of the book is a list of all the main and the major secondary characters, hints at pronunciation, and their relations to each other. I depended on this for a little bit, but it really didn’t take long to feel like I knew these characters intimately, and therefore the list became forgotten.
I loved the commentary on the social customs of the time, especially on the practice of visiting people for no other reason than they had visited you. Not to mention how no one in society really thought poorly of Anna for the decisions she made, but no one was brave enough to actually voice their opinion against the societal norm. I also really liked the differences between city and country life, and the changes it brought out in the different characters. Honestly, there is so much to like in this book, I couldn’t possible mention it all. The only thing I didn’t like was some of the more political discussions, but only because I had trouble following along with the specifics.
It is easy to see why this is considered to be one of the great literary masterpieces. The way the story just moves between the characters is amazing. I’ve never read anything that accomplishes a change between character point of view in such a natural way. The characters are so individually well developed that as I said before, you just feel like you know them intimately; but even more so somehow. They become extensions of yourself. I have just been completely blown away by this book, and now know why so many people list it among their all-time favorites. I am going to be doing that now as well.
by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Penguin, 2000. Originally published 1877
Source: Personal Copy (Thanks Mom!)
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