Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I have just finished an epic reading of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (epic, because of the sheer size of the novel at 806 pages, and also because I read it over two and a half months), and largely I have found that I enjoyed it, that I liked it. But I did not love it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Anna Karenina is an incredibly well written book, and Tolstoy engages with the key issues of humanity in a magnificent way. The novel is filled with dialogue on moral, philosophical and social issues, as well as the everyday demands of the character’s lives. And this is where I find issue with the novel. I am a simple reader – I like my stories to consist of well-structured characters who find themselves in situations (whether they be realistic or fantastic) that force them to reassess their own views and actions, to change and adapt in order to survive and to thrive. Anna Karenina is not that kind of book.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked many of the characters. At the beginning of the novel, I was awed by Anna herself, by her energy and enthusiasm (though she always seemed far too dramatic!), and I loved the way that Tolstoy wrote her. Anna Karenina is a character whom readers fall in love with. I especially enjoyed reading about Kitty and Levin. I found that their characters were interesting and was intrigued to find out what would happen to them.

What stopped me from loving this book though, was that I didn’t feel that any of the characters were truly challenged in a way that forced them to grow and to develop. Their circumstances changed, but often the characters themselves did not. At least not until the very end of the book. Anna’s life in the end was romantic, and ultimately tragic, but I did not feel that it was properly explored within the novel, but rather that Tolstoy glossed over her life in the end, finding more interest in Levin’s internal monologue of morality and philosophy.

The novel’s emphasis on philosophy, morality, society, politics and even agriculture is what really lost me during my reading of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s characters (often Levin) would discuss these aspects at length, sometimes for pages, even chapters, at a time! Much of this was brilliantly written and indeed I have no issue with the way Anna Karenina was written – except perhaps to suggest that it is a little bit long…. My issue is rather with its promotion, and even its title.

I understand that Anna’s choices in life are central to the novel, and that they do influence the lives of all those around her. However, I do not necessarily believe that Anna was a central enough character to warrant the entire thing being named after her. Anna Karenina is so much more than just a novel about a woman and her choices. The blurb of my edition states that “it addresses the very nature of society at all levels – of destiny, death, human relationships and the irreconcilable contradictions of existence”. In my opinion it should be more regularly promoted for what it is: a great literary novel that deals with all aspects of society and human relationships. Anna Karenina is not just a romantic novel, not just a tragic love story.

And that is my other issue. Whilst I was always aware of the tragic aspect of Anna Karenina, what I had mostly been told was that the novel was a romance on a grand scale. An ‘epic romance’ was what I heard. And that is what I was expecting: romance. To be swept off my feet by the kind of romance that would inspire people to leave everything else behind. The kind of all-consuming romance that causes a woman to believe her life is meaningless without it. I expected to fall in love with Anna and Vronsky’s love, and whilst I adored Anna’s character at the beginning, as the novel went on I almost dreaded the chapters that centred on these two characters.

Yet Anna Karenina is always marketed as a romance.

The trailer for the 1935 version of  Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo promotes the film as “The Magnificent, Fascinating, Absorbing Romance of two lovers who forgot the world”.

The trailer for the upcoming version of Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley promotes the story as “”An epic story of love”, a woman’s need to choose between honour and love.

Both of these trailers (and the pictures I found) promote Anna Karenina as a dramatic love story, an epic romance that must be fulfilled no matter the costs. Yet the novel is very concerned with the costs. The moral, social and political impacts of Anna and Vronsky’s love are wide-reaching and influence the lives of all those around them. Tolstoy’s depiction of the relationships between Anna and Vronsky, and Kitty and Levin are marvellously done. Without throwing it in the reader’s face, he clearly illustrates how one relationship is healthy and good, the other doomed and diseased. Really, the novel is written beautifully, if not quite my style.

All in all, I enjoyed Anna Karenina, but it is not the kind of book I would read again. If I had been in the mood for something more in-depth, for something which focussed on the ups and downs of human existence and human relationships, Anna Karenina might have been the perfect book for me. I am glad that I read it, glad that I enjoyed it, in the end. But Anna Karenina was a struggle to get through, and it just isn’t the kind of book that I would fall in love with.

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