Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is described as one of the greatest novelists of all time, and Anna Karenina, his masterpiece.

Like many classics, the first line is one that will stay with you:

"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

My book club chose this monster of a book as our summer read. We had three whole months to read it, and of course I procrastinated. I didn't open it until a week before our meeting, and I finished the night before. No, it is not a fast read, but I actually wish I would have taken more time with it.

This was my second reading of Anna Karenina. The first time I read it was almost 10 years ago, and not only am I glad that I re-read it, but I feel that I got more out of it this time around

Of the seven main characters, there are two couples - Oblonsky (Anna's brother) and Dolly; Levin and Kitty (Dolly's sister) - and a love triangle of Anna, her husband, and her lover, Count Vronksy. All of the couples are intertwined by family and by society.

It is inevitable that a reader compares the relationship between Anna and Vronsky with that of Levin and Kitty. While Anna and Vronsky are dark and passionate, Kitty and Levin are tender and calm. The reader also can't help but take note of the dichotomy of life in the country, Petersburg, and life in the city, Moscow.

The biggest difference between my first and second reading is how I view the women, especially Anna and Kitty. Now that I am a mother, I judge a woman's character by the type of mother she is. Anna and Kitty could not have been two more different mothers, and I found myself judging one more harshly and one much less so once their maternal sides came to light. I sympathized with Anna's being stuck in an arranged loveless marriage, only finding happiness years later when she meets Vronsky, the true love of her life. At least I did until she abandoned her son, and became so selfish that she all but ignored her baby daughter. Kitty, on the other hand, seemed shallow and fickle until she came into her own as a tender and caring mother.

There were parts of the book that I found a bit heavy and long-winded. I'm sure that if I had used my three months more efficiently, I would have taken my time with the Russian history and politics, so I could better understand the political debates among the characters throughout the novel. Even as they were, I found them interesting and strangely current to modern world affairs. If nothing else, the debates shined a light on the different cast members' true characters. Nothing brings our your true colors better than the combination of politics and vodka.

Everyone in our book club agreed that Anna Karenina was one novel that we were glad to have read. It's one of those books that can sit on a reader's To-Read shelf for years until something finally inspires you to pick it up.

If nothing else inspires you to finally get around to reading Anna Karenina, it has to be this comment by one of the women in my book club:

"It's 19th Century chick-lit"

Now, I am told that enjoying Anna Karenina is completely dependent upon which of the half dozen translations you choose to read. I read the Norton Critical edition, translated by George Gibian. Oprah's Book Club used the award-winning translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a husband and wife team published by Penguin Classics (information of this translation below).

About the Book:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Paperback: 864 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classics; First Printing edition (May 31, 2004)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0143035002
ISBN-13: 978-0143035008

The copy of Anna Karenina I read was from my own library.
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