Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

AnnaKareninaCover2I finally finished it!! Wahoo!! This book took me forever to get through. The only other book I’ve read that I can compare my dragged out reading to would be Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. These two books, while both excellent, just never end! I would only read Anna Karenina for short sections at a time (it was my work read, so I was really only reading it on my lunch break), and the few times I read it for long stretches I liked it more.

Set in 1870s Russia, Anna Karenina tells the story of a love affair between Anna and Count Vronsky. Anna is married to Alexey Karenin, a government official, and falls in love with Vronsky. Another plot is that of Levin, who is in love with Kitty (whose sister is married to Anna’s brother), who just happens to think that she’s in love with Vronsky. If that plot summary sounds confusing, just you wait! I kept getting many characters confused, specifically Anna’s brother Stiva and Levin’s brother Sergey. These characters are nothing alike, but I kept confusing them anyways. It also didn’t help that both Anna’s lover and her husband are both named Alexey, but at least her lover is almost always referred to as Vronsky, so that wasn’t too terrible. Another issue I had was that sometimes one character would be referred to as one name, then in the next sentence they would be called something different (ie, nickname, called by the last name instead of the first, etc), and I don’t know enough about Russian names/nicknames to follow this, so I was frequently confused and had to refer to my book journal a lot during this read!

Did I like the book? Absolutely. Well…to clarify, I loved, loved, LOVED the parts with Anna. I could identify with her struggle for love, I understood her, I wanted her to succeed, and I liked her. She lights up the book whenever she is the focus. But the parts with Levin? I can do without those. I think if I were to re-read this (and that will be in a very long time), I would skip all of the parts with Levin, and just read Anna’s story. And that’s all I’ll say about Levin’s story, because honestly it was so boring, and dragged on forever. I think I would have enjoyed it more had his part been shorter. His ending was fitting and appropriate however.

So, with my favorite character being Anna, and my least favorite being Levin, the other character I liked was actually Anna’s husband, Karenin. I felt really terrible for him actually, and even though he was very bland on the surface, I felt his inner turmoil and really just wanted him and Anna to find a way to make it work. I wanted Karenin to show his emotion towards Anna, and there were glimpses of it, but never enough. And Vronsky … what can I say about that irritating man? Handsome, yes, but ugghhh … just so not worth it!!

I loved Anna’s descent into madness and paranoia and also the ominous air that was throughout the book (particularly at the beginning with Anna & Vronsky) and there were several scenes that stood out to me. When reading these particular scenes, I felt that the characters were frozen in time, as if the world was moving around them and they were still, and these scenes are so well written, that I had to read them again and again because they were absolutely beautiful. My favorite scenes were:

  • Anna & Vronsky dance for the first time
  • Train scene where Anna & Vronsky meet in the snow storm
  • Steeple chase scene
  • The Opera scene
  • And of course, the last scene with the train and the chapters leading up to it

Not surprising that they all involve Anna, and each one is important to her character growth and development.

I did watch the latest movie version of Anna Karenina, the one with Keira Knightley as Anna, and she was a spectacular Anna. The movie was very disjointed, although mostly loyal to the source. I don’t actually recommend watching it other than for watching Keira Knightley act the hell out of the role (although her descent into madness was far too abrupt, but that is more of an issue with the script than with the acting), and for the beautiful costumes. Vronsky was irritating (seriously, that mustache needed to come off – now!! It looked like it was Velcro’d on).

The one thing I did really like about the movie was that it captured that “suspended in time” feel in many of the scenes. But I do have to say that the big scene with Vronsky & Anna dancing was really weird. That bizarre dance thing they were doing with their arms just looked super complicated and like their arms would get all tangled up. I have no idea if this was just the way it was choreographed, or if that is really, truly the way the dance is done, but it looked like a disaster to learn and film. I didn’t care for setting the whole movie on a stage; I thought that was super distracting and it kept pulling me out of the story. Plus, it was almost silly to have the train be an obvious model, like here is this ominous story, and they keep showing this train to impart a sense of doom coming, but it’s just a model, so … not very scary.

So, all things considered, I was very glad that I read Anna Karenina. It was definitely worth all the time I spent reading. Parts are breathtakingly beautiful and so well written, scenes burned forever in my head. Anna is a fascinating character that I wanted more of.

Bottom Line: Worth reading, but be warned. Many parts of this book are boring. Read the parts with Anna and skip the rest. Anna’s plotline and character are the most interesting parts of the book.

You might like to read:

  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – read this for a wonderfully written story of a disintegrating married couple. The characters of Frank and April came to mind a lot during my reading of Anna Karenina.
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – if you love classics, and love exceedingly long books, this is really a good read, but it does take forever to get through.

Added to my To Be Read list:

  • The Last Station by Jay Parini – the story of Tolstoy’s final years.

Are there other versions of Anna Karenina that I should watch? Any other classics I should tackle? I think my next classic will be Moby Dick, as I’d like to get that one out of the way since it is one of My Reading Goals for 2016. I’m currently reading Kiana Davenport’s Shark Dialogues, and there are a lot of whaling references in that book, so I feel now is the time to start on Moby Dick.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  1. I agree completely. I loved this book but could have done without some of the Levin sections. Or just shorter Levin sections. Some of them seemed to drag on forever and I was just wanting to get back to Anna!
    But, as you say, it’s definitely worth the effort because parts of it are wonderful.
    Still not sure I’m reading for War and Peace though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of these days I’ll tackle War and Peace, but it will be awhile before I do! I love Tolstoy’s writing, it was actually far more readable than I was expecting. And yeah, shorter Levin sections would have been wonderful. I could have done without most of the farming and election sections.

      Liked by 1 person

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