Amber’s Goodreads review of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina (Centennial Edition)Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You have to give a little leeway to classics like this. Back when it was written, books weren’t the lean, focused narratives they are now. Switching POV from sentence to sentence wasn’t as big a deal, editors weren’t on writers to figure out whose story is really being told and if all these details are necessary. So I went into this with that in mind, and I think it helped.

I actually found Anna Karenina very interesting. It has its very boring parts (all the political stuff that Levin found so perplexing – I’m with ya, buddy) and a whole lot about the social and political structure of Russia at the time that many not find that compelling. I was most interested in the relationships and what was going on with the characters personally.

It followed the stories of a lot of people, including some very side characters (Countess Lidia Ivanova anyone?), and reminded me a lot of a soap opera in that way: just as I was getting into someone’s story, the focus would shift to someone else. My sympathies also shifted around a lot; in fact, the only character I liked consistently was Konstantin Levin, except for right at the end (I’ll get to that in a minute).

Some may feel that Anna’s struggle and her ultimate fate is a morality tale of what becomes of women who “selfishly” follow their desires, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t claim to know Tolstoy’s opinion, but some of the things mentioned make me think my opinion may not be far off. What’s on display here is the terrible double standard existing at the time. Anna says it herself at one or more points, that she’s only doing what others do in secret, but being honest and open about it is somehow a crime. It’s not dallying with another man that’s the sin, but leaving one husband for another. It’s as if it’s okay to play around but not be serious.

Not only that, but men get pretty much a free pass. Sleeping around is a manly thing. Stepan has affairs with ballerinas, singers, governesses, and his social standing doesn’t suffer a bit; it’s his wife who suffers not only the indignity but the emotional pain of her husband cheating on her and spending all his money on his mistresses, leaving little for his family. Anna’s lover, Vronsky, isn’t shunned from society or looked down upon for seducing a woman away from her husband. The blame is all on the woman. One could argue that Karinen suffers in his career due to those who perceive his “inability to control his wife” but he’s not socially shunned, and can find comfort and pride in martyrdom.

My problem with the end is the sudden shift in focus to Levin that takes the impact away from Anna’s suicide. I should have stopped reading right after Vronsky gets on the train. Here you have the character the book is friggin’ named after reaching her tragic end, and we spend the entire end chunk of the book dealing with Levin’s existential crisis. You go from a woman, insane with jealousy and thinking herself unloved by the man she gave up EVERYTHING for, throwing away her life, to reading about Kostya Levin being tempted to suicide because HE CAN’T FIGURE OUT THE MEANING OF LIFE. GIVE ME AN EFFING BREAK, TOLSTOY. Did he feel like he needed a happy ending (since when has that mattered to a classic Russian author, eh?)? If he wanted to do that, he should’ve named the book Konstantin Levin and have done with it.

Overall it was worth the read, though I probably won’t slog through it again. You can tell I found it interesting because I kept discussing the goings-on with my husband, who had to read it for school years back (he didn’t like it; he preferred War and Peace) and I cared about the characters and what was going on with them. I expect that interest in this novel will increase when the movie comes out; I hope people aren’t disappointed.

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~ by Amber on October 12, 2012.

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