Friday, July 08, 2011

Book review: Anna Karenina

Not that anyone was asking me, but I love this cover art from Penguin Classics.  Isn't it beautiful?

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

*shouts from rooftops* I'M FINISHED! 1216 pages!

Okay.  Here's the deal.  At about page 1000 last night, I was all set to write a whiny review about why I wasted a good deal of my summer with this dry book.  But I have to say that Anna's (yes, Anna of the title) final scene and the conflict that she felt leading up to it swayed me in the direction of liking it again as I did before.  I felt like the ending of both major story lines was actually handled perfectly... and for me that tips things in favor of the book.  Book endings are most often disappointing, so I have to give it to ol' Tolstoy for not making me angry.

Let me back up, though.  I know if you read the title "Book review: Anna Karenina" and you're still with me, you're one of three people who even has an interest in reading a review of some 19th century Russian lit.  I don't have any illusions about people rushing out to buy this book, but I felt like it deserved the full blog treatment like any other book I've read.  It's not a book for everyone.  After reading it I'm a little shocked that Oprah chose it as one of her books, but I guess that was just O taking a stab at getting people's minds in good literary shape.  Or something.  I really can't begin to figure it out, but good for her for assigning some old school heavy reading.  She actually has a decent page of resources, too.

What I liked about this novel:  like most longer books, I got a real sense of each character and was able to see him or her develop over a long arc of plot.  The novel follows two major lines and romances--that of Kitty and Levin and that of Anna and Vronsky (and really, Karenin, her husband).  There was a lot of scandal surrounding love triangles and affairs and I liked the contrast of Kitty and Levin's slowly growing relationship against Anna's impetuousness and refusal of societal expectations about how wives should behave.  I also liked how the novel ended, as I said.  Not happy, but thought-provoking and still completely relevant.  Anna's plot line ends with the consequences of an affair and I found its treatment to feel almost modern.  It wasn't a difficult read, but it was dry.  A glance through the reviews on Amazon makes me think that it was the translation I had more than anything.

This book came with some challenges, though.  First, there are just a billion characters.  I was listening to it on my ipod while I ran, especially in the beginning.  Later I read more from my Kindle.  I think it was a benefit to hear it spoken from the start because it made it much easier to keep people straight.  That said, it usually takes me a while to get into a book and I generally need a chart (Oprah has a nice one).  The Russian names were confusing, and of course everyone goes by nicknames or shortened versions so that took some sorting out.  As I said, it's long. Long, long, long, long.  The plot is complex since there are so many people to keep track of.  There are long descriptions of agriculture.  There was a point where I just wanted it to be over.  Though the topics this novel deals with are interesting by today's standards (politics, rural vs urban, affairs, marriage, roles for women, power, new vs old money), the pace with which they were dealt was anything but modern.  If you're going to pick it up, just be prepared to give it some time.  A lot of time.

On a personal level, this just wasn't a favorite.  I've never been a fan of realist fiction.  I think that stems from my having only really read it when it was assigned to me.  I mean, I'm not one of those people who was lit up inside over Henry James.  I'm glad I read this book.  I'm glad I know what it's about.  It felt like learning history, really.  Sometimes you just have to spend time with someone's story and it's not always going to be a nail-biter but you do it because you want to know what it was about.  It felt like doing a long run, too.  Just keep my head down and keep moving until I get there.  There are many more books--more stories--that I want to know, so even though I'm not going to read this kind of thing all the time it's still going to be a part of what I do, you know?

My recommendation: read it someday but don't blame me when you're knee deep in Ruskies and you want to quit.

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