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Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

2010/09/18

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Ask the average person what they know about Tolstoy’s classic novel, and you’re likely to hear something referring to the opening line of the novel. Having never read Tolstoy, I was (shamefully) unaware that this novel was a translation, had eight parts, and spanned over nine hundred pages. The novel begins with Stepan Arkadyevich, brother of the titular Anna, fretting over his relationship with his wife, Dolly, after his recent affair with the governess has been revealed. He looks to his sister’s imminent arrival as a chance to smooth things over with his wife and convince her of his remorse and repentance. Anna works her magic when she arrives, consoling her sister-in-law and making peace amongst the family. Meanwhile, Dolly’s sister Kitty is being courted by two young men, an old family friend named Levin, and a smart army officer named Vronsky, who finds himself quite taken with Anna. The plot moves quickly at first, and I managed to get about halfway through before bogging down. It seems that most of the action happens within the first half, and the second half seems slow in comparison. However, the last chapters of the last part are almost worth the entire read. As one of the characters contemplates questions of life and death, he finds himself “in the position of a man seeking food in a toy shop or at a gunsmith’s. Instinctively, unconsciously with every book, with every conversation, with every man he met, he was on the lookout for light on these questions and their solution.” These last few chapters are not to be rushed through with the end in sight, but rather to be savoured and re-read.

Though this is, in the end, a rewarding read, I can’t say that it something to be approached with pleasure in mind. The pace and style of the writing was difficult to work through, and I considering putting it down several times. I did not find Anna to be a particularly sympathetic character; I empathized more with Levin and Varenka. The book does have a fascinating perspective on marriage and affairs which is mostly lacking in today’s society; the reaction of the Russian society to Anna’s actions, and hers to their actions, are very foreign to our modern sensibilities.

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