Friday, August 10, 2012

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)

As I mentioned in my review of The Alchemist, I have been on a Quest to Read Good Literature. It is a never-ending quest, but I try my best. With the new movie adaptation coming in November, I figured that now would be as good a time as any to crack open my copy of Anna Karenina. I had high expectations for the book: it is considered one of the best books of all time and simultaneously manages to be a soapy drama (which is my secret favorite kind of story). What's not to love?

Oh, right. The extra fluff all over the place. Now, I suppose that this is at least partly my fault for choosing to read the unabridged version, which is (obviously) how I read all of my books. And at times, I actually enjoyed the excess material. My relationship with the book is a little complicated.

The plot: Anna Karenina, a woman of high 1870s Russian society, has an affair. Everything after that point is the aftermath of her infidelity. The book does a masterful job of letting us into the lives of everyone involved: Anna, Count Vronsky (the man for whom she leaves her husband), Anna's husband, Kitty (the girl who was in love with Vronsky before he chose to be with Anna) and Levin (the man who proposes to Kitty and gets turned down). Tolstoy is excellent at splicing a situation into the viewpoints of many characters to allow his readers to examine and contemplate the repercussions of every event and decision.

These characters are vividly portrayed and seem realistic, and after 817 pages of reading about them, they truly seem real (I cringe at saying something so generic, but character dynamics are clearly Tolstoy's strength). It's a lot of fun to read about these characters, especially when the narrative is focused on important life stuff (heartbreak, marriage, pregnancy, jealousy). Unfortunately, Tolstoy spends too much times focusing on the banalities.

We are treated to discussions and inner monologues about religion, farming technique, the "joys of hard work", the validity of communism and socialism (remember, this is imperial Russia), who is the best opera singer, on and on. At first, I enjoyed these tangents because it allows us a historically accurate look into the past from ~150 years later; reading Anna Karenina gives us an idea (a very well-formed idea) of what high-society conversation was like and what the political and social climate looked like. Tolstoy doesn't do a good job of keeping all of these "episodes" in check and they drag down the novel in the middle. Too much of a good thing ends up being a lot of a bad thing.

The novel is also marred by a weak final section. Even though I think the ending to Anna Karenina is one of the most-spoiled in literature, SPOILER WARNING: There are 8 sections to this book, and it is at the end of part 7 that Anna jumps in front of a train. That would logically be the end of the book, but alas, it isn't. There are about 50 pages, the eighth part of the novel, which are filled with particularly meaningless nonsense, culminating in Levin's new understanding of religion and purpose in life. Hooray. I just wanted the book to be done. It was nice to see what everyone was doing after Anna dies, but I think it could have been pulled off better with a "cheesy", Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-type epilogue that gives us a brief glimpse that ties up everything nicely. After the tragic train scene, I just wanted the book to be over.

It's obvious that Anna Karenina is an excellent piece of literature that does a perfect job reflecting human emotion and interaction. In its full, bloated form, it is only a work for patient readers, but it's a highly recommended read. I am very much looking forward to the movie adaptation in the fall, which is sure to cut out the dead weight and focus on the good, literary, soapy drama.

My Rating: 4/5
Anna Karenina on Goodreads
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