Friday, January 12, 2007

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. - from Anna Karenina

"If I were told that what I shall write will be read in twenty years by the children of today and that they will weep and smile over it and will fall in love with life, I would devote all my life and all my strengths to it." - Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Penguin Classics, 2004
(Originally published as a serial in the periodical Ruskii Vestnik, 1875 - 1877)
Fiction (Classic); 838 pgs

Started: 01/01/2007
Completed: 01/12/2007 (10:08 a.m.)
Rating: * (Outstanding)

Reason for Reading: Anna Karenina is my first reading selection for the Winter Classics Challenge and the Chunkster Challenge.

Synopsis: Married to a powerful government minister, Anna Karenina is a beautiful woman who falls deeply in love with a wealthy army officer, the elegant Count Vronsky. Desperate to find truth and meaning in her life, she rashly defies the conventions of Russian society and leaves her husband and son to live with her lover. Condemned and ostracized by her peers and prone to fits of jealousy that alienate Vronsky, Anna finds herself unable to escape an increasingly hopeless situation.

Set against this tragic affair is the story of Konstantin Levin, a melancholy landowner whom Tolstoy based largely on himself. While Anna looks for happiness through love, Levin embarks on his own search for spiritual fulfillment through marriage, family, and hard work. Surrounding these two central plot threads are dozens of characters whom Tolstoy seamlessly weaves together, creating a breathtaking tapestry of nineteenth-century Russian society.

From its famous opening sentence--"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"--to its stunningly tragic conclusion, this enduring tale of marriage and adultery plumbs the very depths of the human soul.

Comments: My husband, Anjin, and I talked at length about how I would approach this review. I talked and fretted; he listened and offered support and the occasional word of advice. What do I say about a book that has stood the test of time, that is considered a classic? There was no way I could do it justice.

When I first began reading Anna Karenina, I gave myself permission to read the book as I would any other novel. I would not concern myself with its reputation nor would I approach it as if it was an academic assignment. I selected to read Anna Karenina because it sounded like a good story and because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And so began my journey to the late 19th century Russia.

Setting and plot are vital parts of any story. The characters, for me at least, are the most important part. Set in Russia during the 19th century, Anna Karenina takes readers into the lives of various characters, most of who are among the higher echelons of Russian society. Leo Tolstoy did not miss a beat when drawing out his characters. He captured a side of human nature most people would rather not recognize in themselves. The common trait among them all seemed to be selfishness—egocentrism. The characters struggled to fit in with their peers, be liked, find purpose for themselves, and maintain the relationships with those around them. Misunderstandings and foibles could have easily been avoided had each of them been more honest with themselves and with their loved ones. Even in the most selfish of characters, who wanted to see nothing outside of their own wants and needs, I found myself feeling pity more than any other emotion. Tolstoy brought the characters to life for me, made me feel for them, and care about what happened to them.

The writing in the novel is beautiful. It was surprisingly easy to read. I do not know how much of that can be attributed to the translators, although I am sure they deserve some credit. There were moments when I got bored with the conversations of the nobles, as they talked about philosophy and politics. While some of the discussions were quite interesting and helped set the stage for the time period, at other times it seemed that the arguments went in circles. Perhaps if I approached the novel with a more critical mind or had been more knowledgeable about the time period, I would have better seen the point.

Overall, Anna Karenina was an enchanting and moving novel. It touched upon social and moral issues as well as the subject of love. Tolstoy is believed to have written this novel as sort of a rebellion against the changing tide of values in society during his lifetime. Whether that is true or not, I do not know. I do know that the author was able to get across the subtleness of change over time as well as the more obvious, be it in popular opinion or within oneself.

As for the subject of love . . . Love is complicated; Tolstoy reminds readers of this in Anna Karenina many times over.

Random Thoughts About Some Of The Characters:
My least favorite of the characters was Stepan Arkadyich, or Stiva for short. My impression of him from the opening of the book was not favorable. He struck me as a very selfish with very little concern for others or how his actions affected his family. Of all the characters, he is the one who changed the least over time.

I was also not too fond of Anna’s husband, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, as the story moved along, although I felt great sympathy for him in the beginning. He is not a man who wants to face his demons and as the story goes on, he becomes more and more disagreeable.

Konstantin Dmitrich Levin is among my favorite characters. Although his sullenness did not always make him an endearing character, he was one of the most down to earth characters. He was always a bit of an outsider, not sure whether he wanted to be with the in crowd or keep to himself. Of all the characters, I think he was the one most fleshed out. In the introduction of the novel, Pevear commented that Levin is most like Tolstoy in personality and shares some of the same experiences. Perhaps that would account for how well developed Levin is.

Like many others who have read this novel, I adored Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna (Kitty). She has an air of innocence about her and yet she is an intelligent woman. Like Levin, she struck me as a down to earth woman. Of all the characters, Kitty is the one that I would not mind having as a friend.

Anna Arkadyevna, for whom the book is named, is probably the most interesting of the characters—and the most mysterious. She married young to an older wealthy man. She was a doting mother, popular among society, and well respected. She had a confidence about her that was envied. Then she met Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky whose own love for her swept her off her feet in a way she could not imagine. Anna was tormented by the position she suddenly found herself in—married to one man but in love with another. Anna was not a completely likeable character in my view and yet there was something about her that drew me to her.

Favorite Part: My favorite part of the novel, although by no means the happiest moment, comes in the seventh part. Tolstoy’s writing throughout is such that he had me pulled into the story, feeling what the characters were feeling. That particular part especially held me captive. I felt what the characters felt and shared in their frustrations, doubts, and hopes. To say more would spoil the story.

I was most impressed too with how Tolstoy introduced many of his characters. For me at least, I found myself connecting with them instantly and that helped keep my attention later in the book during the more slow moments. I have to add though that there really weren’t too many of those, or at least they were over so quickly, I hardly noticed.

I especially liked the moments Tolstoy let me spend with Levin on his farm. I felt refreshed there, the tension of being among society falling away. I can see why Levin so much preferred to be at home and working much of the time.

Factoid About The Author: His real name was Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy.

Miscellaneous: I spent $1.26 on books today (thanks to gift cards and coupons). :-) As a reward to myself for completing Anna Karenina, I thought a little trip to the bookstore was in order (Yes, I know, not exactly in line with my #1 reading goal of the year. What can I say? I’m weak.) Here’s a sampling of what came home with me:

Plum Lovin' by Janet Evanovich ($5.49 with all the discounts! That's cheaper than it would have cost if I'd waited for the paperback). I know I’ll be reading Lean Mean Thirteen as soon as it comes out and I can’t skip this in between book.

The Rest Falls Away by Colleen Gleason - I read an interview with Colleen on one of my favorite blogs (Carl V’s Stainless Steel Droppings), and her novel sounded interesting. It's the first in a new vampire series.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters - A recommendation from Find Me A Good Read. I've actually been thinking about this one for a while but with the recommendation decided maybe it would be a good idea to try it.

More Miscellaneous: Anjin and I are began watching the second season of MI-5 on DVD tonight. We have not really been watching movies lately. With the tv season starting up again soon, I imagine movies will be set aside for awhile.


  1. Wonderful review, Wendy! You did the novel justice *smile* I liked Kitty the best...and your assessment that she would be the one you'd want as a friend was right on track with how I felt about her.

    Wendy (wenchie/caribousmom)

  2. ahhhh! I love this review as well. When you get your hands on Snow Country let me know. If you want I feel fine with mailing you my copy if your ok with sending it back to me in snowy Montreal. Just email me or something. Whatever happens, please let me know when you read it even if it is weeks from now. Would love to see what you think!

  3. Great review! I read this exact translation a few years ago and was also surprised at how easy it was to read. I tend to avoid Russian novels because of the names and how they change back and forth all the time, but I remember really loving this book. I am glad you got to read it and enjoy it, too!

  4. I am jealous that you were able to pick up Plum Lovin'. I have it on hold at the library, and I think I am number 300 or something crazy like that. I may just break down and buy it today or tomorrow. Please let me know how it is!

  5. Wendy - Thank you. :-) I found myself at times wishing the book would hurry up and get back to Kitty so I could see what would happen in her life next. :-)

    Nessie - Why, thank you! I sent you an e-mail about Snow Country. I would love to take you up on your offer, but I'm not sure it would fair since I probably won't get to it until after February. Too many challenge and review books on my plate right now. :-( You're so kind!

    Kim - Thanks! I haven't read too many Russian novels. The names did through me off at first, especially because, as you said the author kept switching between nicknames and given names. It got easier as I went, thankfully.

    Kristie - I hope you are able to get it soon! I have so many other books that I need to read before I crack open that one, but I don't think I'll be waiting too much longer. I can't resist a visit with Stephanie and friends!

  6. A lovely review, Wendy. You certainly did the novel justice and how nice that your husband is so involved in your reading and reviews! I look forward to your next read.

  7. Thanks for visiting and commenting in my blog! I did enjoy The Thirteenth Tale very much. I finished it a few days ago.

    I tried to read Anna Karnenina a few years ago and couldn't get into it. I will try again some day.

  8. I was fourteen when I read this book and hated the ending. I'm sure I wasn't mature enough to truly appreciate this classic but I enjoyed your review.

  9. Lovely review. I read AK 17 years ago, and still remember I enjoyed Levin and Kitty's story more than Anna's. It was my first Russian novel, and because it was so beautiful and easy to read, led me to other Russian writers like Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn.

  10. What a wonderful review!! So articulate and echoing so many of my own thoughts about this book. I absolutely want to reread this again soon!! (Oliver will be one his way to you next week.)


  11. I really enjoyed reading your review. And, I really liked how you approached the novel, the permission to read it and enjoy it as you would any other novel. I think too often we think of "classics" as difficult works because they take us back to school days. Anyway, now I want to read this! :)

  12. I will be interested to hear what you think about "The Night Watch." It gives you a good idea what it was like to be in London during the war. I think I liked Waters' "Fingersmith" better, though.

  13. Lotus - Ah, thank you! I am indeed lucky that my husband tolerates my incessant chatter about books. LOL He actually is very patient with me when I want to bounce ideas and thoughts off him. I think too, it makes him feel good that I turn to him for advice now and again. :-)

    Eileen - I am glad to hear you enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale. I can see how Anna Karenina might be a book a person needs to approach when in the mood for it. If you do try it again, hopefully it will pull you right in. If not, that's okay too. Not every book is for everyone, right?

    Framed - I cannot even imagine attempting Anna Karenina at 14, although I imagine a lot of young people do considering it turns up on reading lists for school so often.

    Lazy Cow - Thank you! Yes, Levin and Kitty's story is my favorite as well. I was trying to find a little bit of trivia about why the title ended up being Anna Karenina, but so far I haven't had any luck. Anyone else know, by chance?

    Heather - Oh, thank you so much! I can see myself rereading Anna Karenina one day too--maybe pay a little more attention to the detail. It's really no surprsie to me after having read it that it has stood the test of time.

    And thank you again for the book. I've had the song about pick pocketing in my head all week for some reason . . .

  14. Iliana - Thank you! I totally agree with you in how we often approach "classics", expecting so much of them and in some respects fearing they'll be difficult to read. So much pressure on the book! Haha Seriously though, I think it can sometimes take away the enjoyment of the story and characters sometimes when we put so much effort into overthinking a book.

    Malady - I have heard of Fingersmith, but never read it. The Night Watch certainly sounds interesting, and I like the time period and setting very much. I'm looking forward to reading it. :-)

    Sherry - Why, thank you! I definitely plan to stop by and see what everyone else is reading. It's a great idea!

  15. Wow, great review. I hated the book when I read it a few years ago, but your review almost makes me want to go back and re-read it. Well, ... maybe not. I enjoyed your review more than I did the actual book.

  16. Great review!

    I have A NIGHT WATCH (Waters) on my TBR list (not the challenge) and hopefully will read it soon. I look forward to reading your review of that.

  17. Kevin - LOL Thank you for the compliment. I can see why it wouldn't be a book for everyone.

    Joy - Thanks! I doubt I'll be getting to Night Watch before March, but you can never tell. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the book too!

  18. Excellent review. I loved that book. Love you kitties too, they're adorable

  19. Thanks, Chris! The kittens are adorable, aren't they? I need to find something with a dog on it so my dog will feel represented also. :-)

  20. After reading such a wonderful review I feel a little guilty for having reverted to the Cliffs Notes when I had to read it in Year 10 English! I feel all inspired now to try again, once I've gotten through my current double shot of Turgenev.

  21. Coversgirl - Don't feel guilty. The pressure of reading it for a class and deadlines are enough to turn just about anyone off. If you do give it another go, I hope you enjoy it!

  22. I love Tolstoy! I am trying to collect all his works..and I just have to end up reading them! :)
    What other titles by him have you read?

  23. Reminds me of just what a wonderful read Anna Karenina is. Thanks for the lovely post.

  24. Thank you, LK!

    Bookwormaddict - Anna Karenina is actually my first Tolstoy novel. I may venture onto War and Peace one of these days. :-)

  25. We are supposed to be reading this in class (Grade 10), and most of the people in my class haven't finished it. Although I am a year younger than the rest of the people in my class, I have finished the book. I thought that this was a good review because that is almost how I felt about the book.


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