This is primarily the story of Anna Karenina's troubled affair with Alexey Vronsky. It's also the story of Konstantin Levin's search for love and truth in society.
While reading this book, I kept wishing that I could just read a "good parts version" as William Goldman called The Princess Bride. I kept getting bogged down in Tolstoy's reflections, mostly through Levin's eyes, of how decadent, silly, redundant, and complicated life in the upper class of 19th-century Russian society was. There would be pages and pages of a tangent that could have been an essay called "What's Wrong With Agriculture in Russia." I didn't care. There were also pages and pages of Levin watching an election and having no idea what was going on. If he didn't get it, there's no way that this 21st-century American woman is going to. Those parts just seemed to drag on and on and on.
But the story itself was beautifully written and really made me think. I'm all for women's rights, but I would catch myself thinking, "What a selfish, ungrateful woman!" And then I would think, "Well, if it weren't for women like Anna pushing the limits of acceptable behavior, you wouldn't enjoy the freedoms you do today." And then I'd go right back to thinking, "I can't stand her! She wants everything her way!" I'm not really exaggerating. I really had this internal dialog going on throughout almost every scene that featured Anna. I think part of the problem for me was that her husband was a good man, she just didn't love him. So I was torn between how Anna was hurting him and her quest for love.
I was worried about reading this, not necessarily because of the size, but because I wasn't sure how difficult it would be to understand. I really didn't have any problem with that. It was very readable--except for when I was falling asleep during the tangents. The thing that really got me at first were all the names! I kept hearing that all the characters' names in Russian literature would get me confused, so I was sort of prepared, but I wasn't really expecting it to be as bad as it was. Almost every character, no matter how minor, was named. The major characters had several names and nicknames. It got so bad that I just had to laugh when I read that Levin had cows--cows!--named Pava, Berkoot, Hollandka, and a dog named Laska. The cows were never mentioned again. Ugh! But someone pointed me to Oprah's Book Club discussion of Anna Karenina. There was a character bookmark on there that I printed out and it helped tremendously. There were just a few spoilers on it though.
The ending was weak. Tolstoy built up and built up to this crashing climax, and then he spoiled it by rambling on for another twenty pages about Levin's search for faith. That really ruined the ending.
Overall, though, I don't regret reading this, but it was one of the very few books that left me wishing that I had found an abridged version.
Reviewed January 31, 2009
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Friday Flashback Reviews are a weekly feature here on The Introverted Reader. These are old reviews I wrote on GoodReads. Thanks to Angieville and her Retro Friday Reviews for the inspiration and encouragement!I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop's, my local independent bookstore located in downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site.