Read: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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How is it April already–or nearly? Beginning a new job in January and taking a two-week vacation in Japan and Singapore during mid-March has certainly kept me busy but I’ve not posted sooner because Anna Karenina is an immense, expansive novel; at 940 pages, it’s probably the longest book remaining on my shelf but I wanted to finally tackle this revered classic and now have. Leo Tolstoy is certainly a master of the written word.

The opening line sums the book up; it is not a carefree account of life but a realistic look into the disfunction the pervades many relationships. Yet, this novel is so much more than that.

All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

My brain still buzzes with the complexities and subtleties of not only the storytelling but also the range of topics covered and the numerous characters that are intimately followed. Though Anna is the title character, she is only one of many and, in fact, I would wager Levin is truly the main character with more of the story dedicated to him. However, Anna is the centerpiece, from which all of the other plots ripple out from or are triggered by her actions, so in that sense she is the central pillar of the novel. Yet, much of the plots do not include her directly and cover diverse topics such as Russian politics, farming, class dynamics, and religion. While Oprah’s website calls the novel “a sexy and an engrossing read”, those wouldn’t be my overall descriptions of this Russian novel, yet it’s impressive she chose this as one of her summer reads. A beach read, page-turning romance it is not; an all-summer-long-read perhaps. Tolstoy captures the essence of familial as well as romantic relationships so well that I was riveted throughout much of the novel, nodding in agreement or experiencing what the characters felt along with them. To me, that is the sign of amazing writing, to capture the feelings and thoughts in a realistic and evoking way that affects the reader. Beyond emotion though, Anna Karenina is an intellectual, challenging read especially during the characters’ theoretical, political, and philosophical discussions with each other. Tolstoy takes the reader along with Levin as he farms alongside his workers, ponders the meaning and motivation of hard labor and how it influences moral behavior, and internally debates the dynamics of classes and whether someone can or even should raise above their birth class. This is by no means a beach read, yet it stimulates the heart and mind so throughly in almost ever possible aspect of life with such skill that it defies being long-winded or needing to be edited down because every piece of the story further adds to the richness of Russian life, society, and culture during the 1870s.

Similar to Madame Bovary (a favorite of mine!), this is a tale of caution about adultery and selfishness. Ultimately, Anna and Vronsky are miserable and punished, while Levin and Kitty build a wonderful life together with a bright future. Yet no characters are inherently good or bad, as they all are redeeming and flawed in their own ways. Tolstoy’s deft writing creates a very real world that makes it believable and a great story both for pleasure and food-for-thought. I enjoyed it, though some parts were more difficult to get through since occasional passages bogged me down with the detailed discussions and topics that I didn’t find as interesting, like the early on section about farming (20 pages or so?) before it hit me that Levin, along with Anna, is a major character, hence all of the time spent with him.

*Note: my copy of Anna Karenina is the Signet Classics version, published in 1961, and again in 2002 with a new introduction, and translated by David Magarshack. I heard from my aunt, who read it with her book club, that each translation differs, sometimes greatly, when comparing texts. I enjoyed this version but it would be interesting to see some of my favorite sections in other translations, since I loved certain phrases and wording. Makes me wonder what Tolstoy’s original Russian is truly like and how much more beautiful his words are in his own language.

 

Recommended?: Yes if you love long, winding novels that weave many characters lives together and create a complete world within the novel. Also, Downton Abbey fans will feel right at home, since there are many similarities between life and society with an emphasis on Russia and its culture, opposed to the British setting of that tv show; since I don’t read this time period usually, having those touchstones to draw from helped me enter the novel more fully and understand when, for example, one character tells another that he doesn’t need to run home and change for dinner, that makes the man uncomfortable to stay since he will be improperly dressed for the other guests. My piece of advice is if you start the novel then persevere and finish it to the very end; it is absolutely worth it! Just remember, it’s quite an intellectual read at times but all of the sections give you a full understanding of the characters, which is part of the charm of Tolstoy and by the end, you may feel like one of the family.

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