Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy: a Review

I listened to Anna Karenina on audiobook. This was my first audio experience, and it was quite a doozy. More than thirty hours. I probably could have chosen something a little easier, but I thought, why not just go big.

This is one of those books that appears on a lot of those “must read” lists. Tolstoy frequents the top works of world literature lists. As such, it’s been one I’d like to read someday. Listening to it on audiobook, in some ways made this easier. It wasn’t exactly an easy book to follow along with, however.

Though she’s the title character, Anna Karenina isn’t the main character of this novel. That honor falls to Konstantin Levin, a Russian aristocrat who prefers the rural, country life to the city life of the wealthy nobility. The story follows him as he proposes to the woman he loves, suffers her rejection, then later pursues her again, this time successfully.

Levin struggles with issues of faith and with the meaning of life. Or the meaninglessness of it. He watches his brother die from a prolonged illness and begins to question his own mortality, sinking into a depression. After the birth of his son, Levin has a major crisis of faith, finally reaching a personal decision of what that should be.

The story also follows the progression of the love affair of Anna Karenina, detailing her passionless marriage, her doting affection for her son, and the deterioration of her relationship with her lover. There is a sort of parallel between Anna’s affair and that of her brother, Stepan Oblonsky, who is married to the sister of Levin’s wife. This serves to demonstrate the double standard between faithless men and faithless women.

I really struggled with writing this review, not quite sure how to convey my thoughts about this book. To be honest, I had a some difficulties with the book. The large cast of characters and the vastness of the story line weren’t easy to keep up with when listening to the story in twenty to thirty minute segments, sometimes days apart.

Overall, the book is amazing, and no doubt deserves to be on all those lists. There are some really beautiful passages, I wish I had made note of some of them. The book was difficult for me to relate to, however, and I’m not sure I really enjoyed it that much.

This distance could be due to a number of factors. One, the book was written more than a hundred years ago, first published in 1877. It was written in a language other than that which I read it, in a country who’s history I’m not familiar with. Also, several passages of the dialogue were read in French rather than English, making it impossible for me to understand. Unfortunately, I don’t speak French.

One thing I took away from this experience is that Anna Karenina is a maddening treatise on the state of marriage and the gross inequalities between men and women in such relationships. While much has changed in the hundred years since this book was written, much still has not.

I’m glad I experienced this book. My negative impressions haven’t impacted my new found love for audiobooks. Nor do I think they will keep me from someday picking up Tolstoy’s other, perhaps more famous novel, War and Peace. Maybe next time I’m feeling ambitious.

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