“I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”
Anna Karenina is one of those books that I have always wanted to read, but have always been slightly (*very) intimated by. It has sat on my bookshelf for years, and especially after having read Anna K, a modern retelling of the novel, last year (review here) I was desperate to read it. It wasn’t until a pal on bookstagram suggested a readalong that I decided to take the plunge, and wow, am I glad that I did.
If you are unfamiliar with the story of Anna Karenina, it is essentially about a woman who falls from the heights of Russian society when she leaves her husband, Karenin, after an affair with another man, Count Vronsky. In deciding to pursue her truth and happiness in love, she loses everything else. Meanwhile, Levin is a wealthy landowner and farmer who lives on the outskirts of Russian society, but whose love for a princess brings him closer to the world that he had previously turned his back on. These two characters’ stories play out in parallel over the course of the book, against a backdrop of a changing Russia which is grappling with questions of industry, development and culture.
I was pleasantly surprised by the characters in this novel. I don’t know why, but I expected the characters, particularly the women, to feel flat and one-dimensional. In fact, I was impressed by how alive and real they felt to me. They all have their flaws and thoughts, which Tolstoy shows you on the page as clearly as anything. Apart from Anna and Levin, who are obviously the most prevalent of the cast members, I also found Dolly fascinating, with her complicated relationship with motherhood. I would read a book about Dolly – are there any out there?
There is an awful lot to unpack in Anna Karenina, as you would expect by a book with an 800+ page count. I can tell that this is the kind of book that you can return to time and time again and find more details to analyse, and even though I couldn’t stop making notes in the margins, I knew that I was only scratching the surface of what this book had to offer. In particular, I loved how Anna and Levin’s stories unfold across the length of the book and thinking about how they mirrored each other. The two storylines really add to each other’s, and I think that in isolation, neither story would have had as much ‘oomph’. I also loved thinking about the themes of change, love, revenge and motherhood.
As I’ve mentioned already, this book is very long. I don’t have anything against long books and this one was definitely worth it, however there were some sections that felt like I was trudging through treacle. One part which stands out was a section in which Levin talks about Russian farming methods for what felt like ages, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this fully turned someone off the book. However, to anyone who gets stuck in this section, I can only say that finishing this book is worth the effort. Despite the length, the story in Anna Karenina is wonderful and moving, the characters are alive and detailed, with depth and flaws and complex thoughts and lives. Tolstoy’s cast of characters is colourful and exciting to follow, even if they do sometimes subject you to a lecture about the most efficient and moral farming methods.
Overall, a great start to my 2021! I can’t wait to see what other books this year brings!