Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is one of those classic stories that you would think really needs no introduction - at least that's what I thought before I read it. I've seen 2 different versions of the film of this book, the one with Vivien Leigh and the ones with Keira Knightley, and neither of them was a very good representation of the actual story.

Anna Karenin is the wife of a well known political figure in St. Petersburg, Russia. She leads a normal life for a woman of her position in the late 1800s, and she has an 8 year old son. One day when visiting her brother in Moscow, her life changes. She was in Moscow to convince her sister-in-law not to divorce her two-timing husband when she meets the man her sister-in-law's younger sister is in love with, Count Vronsky. Vronsky and Anna have an immediate and unexplainable attraction that they can never shake. They begin an affair in spite of Anna's marriage. Anna feels extremely guilty for what she's done, but can't separate herself from Vronsky. After much turmoil, the affair eventually causes Anna to lose her place in society and drives her into such a deep depression that she throws herself in front of an oncoming train.

That is the story that most people think of when anyone mentions Anna Karenina - inexplicable deep love and personal torment. This story is of course what the book is named for, but not what I would identify as the main point. The story is not just about Anna and Vronsky (gasp!) - the story is sort of split in two and shared between time to describe Anna's life as well as Constantine Levin, the man who is in love with Anna's' sister-in-law's younger sister, Kitty. Kitty is head over heels for Vronsky and all is going well until Anna shows up and unintentionally steals him away from her. Kitty is devastated. She had just refused an offer of marriage from Levin in hopes that Vronsky will ask her only to have him toss her to the side like nothing. Vronsky never feels remorse for this. He's a very self-centered man who is only out to please himself. Kitty and Levin then break for a while, understandably. Levin becomes very deep in work at his farm (in spite of his social status, he enjoys the manual labor of farming), and just goes on with life - but he never really forgets Kitty. Kitty grows up quite a bit, and quite a while later (I believe it's over a year later), she and Levin meet again and become engaged and get married.

It is safe to say that the story of Levin is to serve as a contrast to the story of Anna. If Anna's life is about throwing aside everything in the name of love, Levin's' story is more along the lines of good things come to those who wait. Both stories have one chief concern: the pursuit of happiness. Levin is a very good (and very stereotypically Russian) man, and he not only loves Kitty deeply, but he also devotes a good deal of his life to being a better person. He is on the quest for the meaning of life, and while he doesn't really learn "the meaning", he realizes a great deal about man's relation to God and why it's important. Levin is a very level headed and realistic person, while Anna is wrapped up in being what she believes Vronsky wants her to be, which aids her paranoia that he will up and leave her. She is so codependent it's crazy. She is obsessed with being attractive at all times, spends time reading books on subjects she knows Vronsky is interested in, and can't stand to be separated from Vronsky even for an evening. This mental state would drive anyone nuts, and eventually Anna decides that Vronsky's life would be greatly improved if she wasn't in it, so she kills herself. Levin, on the other hand, achieves healthy and sustainable happiness. He works for what he has and appreciates it, never taking any of it for granted and always striving to achieve more.

I realize this is a very small snippet of what the story actually conveys - it was an incredibly long book. I really enjoyed the entire story though. Not only is it a story about love and happiness, it's also a great look into Russian history in the time that lead to the crazy events that would change Russia forever. It's very interesting to get into the minds of those who lived in that time, and it really does make the Russian revolution in 1912 make much more sense. This was an excellently written book as well - I was quickly struck with how modern the writing style is in spite of it publication date. I can completely understand why this book has been cherished for its entire existence and it is really worth adding to your list. I give this book 5 out of 5 stars.


  1. Very good review Meg!
    I disliked Anna so much as a character when I read it, and so have never recommended the book to anybody. I found her devoid of any self-worth or any true personality or self-pride, the exact kind of personality we see too often in the media these days. She always needed validation from others and couldn't just be a person on her own.
    Interesting you gave it 5/5, but you're so right, it was very well written and most of the things I enjoyed were also about Russia and the other characters. I wish the novel wasn't named after her character though!

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  3. Me too! I felt the same way about Anna, and honestly if the story was only about her life I would have hated it. Levin was by far my favorite character - if he hadn't been equally important to Anna, my review would not have been so high. I also really liked Dolly. Overall, I enjoyed the other aspects of the book so much that I ended up loving the book :) Totally a side note, but I was obsessed with finding out what the psychological term was for Anna's condition in the end, and it's just plain old codependency (obviously a very advanced case of it). She certainly had problems, lol.


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