Tuesday, May 24, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

At Christmas time last year I made a pact with a family member to read two chapters of Anna Karenina every day (5 days/week) to finish it in approximately 5 months.  I had tried to read this book when I was in college, but couldn't get into it at that time. This time, I almost gave up at chapter 5, but once I got through it, the chapters and the story line seemed to move along pretty quickly. It definitely had some long, boring parts that I had to struggle to get through and then other parts where I didn’t want to put it down.  I guess that’s to be expected with a 1,000 (or so) page book.  

Here is my summary of the book (scroll to the bottom for my review):

Part I - We meet most of the main characters including:
  • Stiva, Anna’s brother
  • Dolly, Stiva’s wife who has just discovered he had an affair
  • Levin, a bachelor who lives in the country and comes to ask Kitty to marry him
  • Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister who has feelings for Levin, but also for Vronsky and turns Levin down
  • Vronsky, who falls in love with Anna
  • Anna, who comes to visit to help Dolly and Stiva repair their relationship
  • Karenin, Anna’s husband
  • Seryozha, Anna’s son
Part II - We meet some of the secondary characters.  Kitty is in poor health emotionally after turning Levin down and Vronsky leaving and she goes abroad to get better.  Anna and Vronsky begin having an affair.  Karenin becomes suspicious of this relationship and warns Anna about public appearances, although he does not allow himself to believe that Anna is doing anything disloyal.  Anna tells Vronsky that she is pregnant.  He asks her to leave her husband and she tells him that she cannot, but in the end she confesses to her husband about the affair. 

Part III - Mostly about Levin, his agricultural work, his thoughts about the agricultural reform in Russia and his feelings about Kitty.  Levin is tries to forget about Kitty, but still loves her.  After Anna tells her husband about her affair with Vronsky, her husband decides it is best for them to stay together, but threatens to divorce Anna and take her son away if she invites Vronsky into their home.

Part IV - Anna continues her relationship with Vronsky, despite her husband's warning.  Karenin talks with a lawyer about divorce, which was much more complicated legally in Russia at the time.  Frustrated and hopeless, Karenin has a heart-to-heart with Dolly about the situation.  That same night Levin and Kitty reconnect and begin planning their wedding.  Although Karenin seems unchanged by the conversation with Dolly, she says some things that stick with him later.  Karenin receives word that Anna is dying after childbirth.  He makes his way back home to Anna's bedside where he forgives her and Vronsky (also present).  Vronsky attempts suicide, but fails, leaving himself wounded.  Anna recovers.  Karenin has forgiven her and becomes attached to the new baby girl.  Anna cannot bear to live with her husband any longer.  Her brother comes to talk with her and Karenin and pleads with him to grant her a divorce.  Karenin worries that granting her a divorce will lead to her ruin, which he does not want to be responsible for.  In the end, Anna goes abroad with Vronsky, leaving behind her husband (without a divorce) and son.

Part V - Levin and Kitty get married.  A few months later Levin realizes getting married wasn't all that he imagined it would be.  He begins to feel a little held back by Kitty and doesn't understand her interest in domestic matters.  Levin's brother dies of consumption, with Levin and Kitty by his side.  In the end Kitty finds out she is pregnant.  Vronsky and Anna begin to run into alienation by their circle of friends.  Vronsky takes up painting, but becomes bored with it.  The two return to Russia where Anna takes an opportunity to visit her son, unannounced.  Her husband and his friend, Countess Lidia Ivanovna denied her request to visit Seryozha, so she sneaks into the home and upon exit runs into Karenin.  Anna begins to worry that Vronsky is no longer in love with her.  In order to feel like she's part of her former circle, she attends a show at the theater, against Vronsky's wishes.  Vronsky has a feeling it will not go well, and he is right.  Anna is crushed by the way she is treated by her friends and she and Vronsky leave Petersburg.

Part VI - Kitty's family comes to stay with her and Levin.  Dolly's husband brings a gentleman named Veslovsky to visit.  Levin is uncomfortable with Veslovsky's flirtatious behavior towards Kitty and becomes very jealous.  At one point he makes a scene and asks Veslovsky to leave.  Dolly goes to visit Anna and Vronsky and is very jealous of their lifestyle, but also notices strange behavior in Anna. Vronsky asks Dolly to talk to Anna about divorcing her husband.  Although she tries, the conversation doesn't seem to persuade Anna at all.  After a brief visit, Dolly decides she prefers her drab life to the luxurious life Anna leads.  Anna becomes increasingly jealous about Vronsky when he is away.  While away at the provincial elections lasting longer than Anna expected, Anna sends him a letter to let him know that Annie is not well.  During this time away, Anna decides she must get a divorce and marry him in order to prevent him from leaving her.
  
Part VII - Levin and Kitty are in Moscow waiting for Kitty to deliver their first baby.  One evening after drinking and gambling Stiva talks Levin into going to meet Anna, against Levin's better judgement.  Levin enjoys meeting Anna, but knows he has made a wrong decision when he tells Kitty where he had been.  Jealousy begins to cause a strain on Anna's relationship with Vronsky.  She is sure he has fallen in love with another woman while he is out doing whatever he wants and she has lost ties with all of her social connections due to her "position."  Kitty gives birth to a son, Dmitri.  Levin is surprised by his feelings of disgust towards the baby, rather than the love he expected to feel.  Stiva is struggling for money and goes to visit Karenin to ask for a new post.  He also asks Karenin to grant Anna a divorce.  Karenin declines.  Anna becomes more jealous towards Vronsky and begins thinking of suicide.  She goes to visit Dolly to talk with her about what is going on and finds Kitty there.  She is too proud to open up about these issues with Kitty around and thinks Vronsky is still in love with Kitty.  Her thoughts become irrational and at the end Anna commits suicide by throwing herself in the way of a passing train, similar to a scene from the beginning of the book. 

Part VIII - Stiva gets the job he was hoping for.  Karenin takes custody of baby Annie while Vronsky volunteers for service in the Russo-Turkish war.  In this section Tolstoy discusses his views on war.  A lightning storm takes place at Levin and Kitty's home, frightening Levin while Kitty and the baby are outside.  This event helps him realize the love he has for his son, for whom he previously only felt disgust.  In this section and especially the last chapter Levin discovers his own faith and his desire to live a good life.

My Review:

Although I am pretty sure I will never read this book again, I am glad I read it.  I can understand why it is a classic - in about a thousand pages, Tolstoy covers almost every major theme of life, such as love, marriage, infidelity, relationships, death, war, politics, etc. Yet, being a classic doesn't make it easy to read.  There were some themes which I found challenging to get through, such as agriculture and war; where I personally preferred the parts about love, family and relationships.

My interest level in the book would go up and down throughout the book depending on the storyline.  For me, it was difficult when Tolstoy would shift between storylines (i.e. from Levin in the country to Anna in Petersburg to Kitty wherever she is abroad).  It would take me a little while to shift gears, but as I got further in to each individual storyline, that seemed to get easier. 

The feeling I came away with at the end of the book was, why was this book titled Anna Karenina?  I've read many descriptions that say the book is about Anna Karenina and how the Russian society in the late 1800's reacted to this woman who had an affair and left her husband, but for me it was not about that, at least not entirely.  The book seemed to be more about Levin than Anna.  It's about all of the things that had to happen in order for Levin to find peace within his soul. 

Levin was in love with Kitty who originally turned down his marriage proposal for the possibility of being with Vronsky.  If it hadn’t been for Anna accidentally stealing Vronsky’s heart, Kitty and Levin may not have ended up together.  Although Anna’s affair is a major part of the book, Levin’s quest for faith is equally as big of a theme.  All of the bad things that happened to other characters in the book (death, affairs and financial struggles) help Levin discover his own faith in the end.

If you are up for a challenge and a thought-provoking read, I recommend Anna Karenina.  If you're looking for something quick and easy, this is not the book for you!