Monday, 26 November 2012

Book review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Every so often when my boss and I discuss literature, she tells me that Anna Karenina is her favourite novel and is shocked and horrified that I have not read it. 'Magnificent', I believe, is her favourite word to describe the work.

Last month, spurred on partly by her recommendation and partly by the impending release of a movie adaptation, I borrowed the novel from my sister-in-law and knuckled down to read.

This is what I expected from Anna Karenina;
  • Reading exhaustion. That feeling you get when you’re a third of the way through a book and you suddenly run out of steam or lose all interest but you have to keep going. For hundreds more pages.
  • Confusion from the Russian names, which I cannot pronounce let alone remember.
  • That it would take me months to read and I would most likely read 2 other books in between just to give myself a break.
None of that happened.

All that happened was I fell for this story utterly and completely. It is tremendous. It is at every turn of the page the epic Russian novel you think it will be. A host of characters flow in and out of the story, as Tolstoy deftly switched between storylines and points of view, bringing the reader in to see every angle and become acquainted with the thoughts and emotions of each unhappy individual.

For those who want the three sentence overview of the novel; Anna Karenina is set in the lives of the nobility in the last decades of grand imperial Russia. The titular protagonist is the social ideal of a perfect wife and mother until she meets and falls passionately in love with Count Vronsky. In abandoning her respectable life to be with him, she leaves behind her hated husband, her beloved son and her place in the world to be an outcast. Anna's story is interwoven with those of a host of family and friends whose stories run the breadth of the human experience.
Keira Knightly as Anna and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky.

Tolstoy's characters are so intricately and artfully drawn that they live on the pages in a way few characters can. We can picture Anna perfectly as she paces the study, the stifling rigidity of her husband, Alexei Alexandrovich and feel the fluctuating passions of Kitty as she moves from childish innocence and fantasies through bitter disillusionment and to become a strong wife and mother.

What I enjoyed most about Anna Karenina was the central dramatic relationship between Anna and Vronsky. Founded on intense passion and the miraculous moment of meeting the love of your life, it is set apart from the companionable marriages and pointless affairs of the society they live in. In its arc, this relationship mirrors a modern relationship that sparks from mutual attraction, becomes complicated and messy despite the love you have for each other and ultimately ends painfully. The modern reader can empathise with the lovers in a way we cannot with Tess and Angel Clare or Catherine and Heathcliff (damn those couples annoy me).

Jude Law as Alexei Alexandrovich, Anna's husband.

Through the mouth of the character Levin, Tolstoy commentates not only on the judgement placed by society on women who make independent 'immoral' choices (Anna) but also on the State of the modernising Russia he saw around him. Tolstoy expounds on such diverse topics as Russian agriculture and the place of the worker, religion, marriage and the nature of forgiveness. It is this window into a time in history that is the brilliance of Tolstoy and raises Anna Karenina from 'classic' to great and irreplaceable literature.

Domhall Gleeson as Levin, Tolstoy's 'cameo'.

I am not going to say this was an easy read. At 817 pages in the Penguin classics edition, it is a truly epic work requiring patience and not a little fortitude. I did get a little fatigued in the last 100 pages, because I just wanted to know how it all ended! All I knew of the novel before I started reading was the famous opening line and the story of Anna. Of Vronsky, Kitty, Levin, Daria and Stiva I had no idea as to the path Tolstoy would lead them. Levin expounding at length on the Russian worker could also get a little tiring. Tolstoy was a complex man of many interests and that comes across clearly in his writing. This is no ordinary novel, but a commentary on a way of life.

Tolstoy regarded this work, published as serial installments between 1873 and 1877, as his first novel. War and Peace, published in 1869, he felt was ‘more than a novel’. I feel Anna Karenina could equally qualify for this descriptive. I may leave a few years before I tackle War and Peace.

I’m not going to write anything more on Anna Karenina. I would rather leave in-depth discussion and analysis to the generations of writers and literature professors who have already given their much more inciteful opinions. All I can say is that for me, Anna Karenina was a genuine delight to read. Engaging, unexpected, character-driven literature at its finest. Set aside the time to read this book. You won’t regret it.

 Trailer for the movie, due out in February 2013.


  1. Great review! I haven't read Anna Karenina since my AP English class in high school. I was so immature then, I can't possibly have appreciated it as much as it deserves.

  2. I'm glad I didn't attempt to read it too many years ago, I would not have enjoyed it as much as I did. I also might not have had the concentration to see it through to the end! Books are always better when you devour them, rather than putting them down and picking up months later.


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