Last year, I decided to start reading more big books to stop being intimidated by them. So many books look intimidating but are all the more worth it because of the length. It was time I slowly started conquering them.

The next big book on my list is War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I had read online that Anna Karenina is a better read for someone reading Tolstoy for the first time, and that War and Peace is easier to read after Anna Karenina.

Conquering big books is not easy so it is good to take an easier and more appealing route if possible. So, following the internet's advice, I picked up Anna Karenina first.

about Anna Karenina

anna karenina vintage classics book cover

Acclaimed by many as the world's greatest novel, Anna Karenina provides a vast panorama of contemporary life in Russia and of humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in all of literature. Anna is a sophisticated woman who abandons her empty existence as the wife of Karenin and turns to Count Vronsky to fulfil her passionate nature - with tragic consequences. Levin is a reflection of Tolstoy himself, often expressing the author's own views and convictions.

Throughout, Tolstoy points no moral, merely inviting us not to judge but to watch. As Rosemary Edmonds comments, 'He leaves the shifting patterns of the kaleidoscope to bring home the meaning of the brooding words following the title, 'Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.

my review

If I was going to read a huge book like Anna Karenina, I wanted my copy to be pretty. Pretty books are much more appealing to read. While the regular classics editions with simple black and white covers are appealing in a way, they're not my thing. I had seen the Vintage Classics edition and wanted only that, even if it was expensive.

Before buying both Anna Karenina and War and Peace in the Vintage Classics edition, I spoke to my friends about it. Manjushree, who had bought these exact editions a year back, told me to take her copies because she wasn't getting to them.* She didn't mind if I annotated all over the pages too. I am not a fool so I took her up on the offer.

It took me another month to gather the courage to actually read the book but I soon fell into the story.

*another reason why I love having close reader friends: their books are my books too and vice versa <3

All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The story, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, was so easy to read. I did not expect that. Classics, in my mind, are always written in old English and are hard to read. I completely forgot that translations aren't necessarily like that.

The writing was simple and easy to read throughout the book. It was mostly in common modern English. I didn't have trouble with it at all.

The story is broken up into small chapters such that each chapter takes 5-15 minutes to read. Some chapters are just a page long. This makes the book much more easy to get through. Reading just for 10 minutes a day felt like progress because I would get through two chapters. The chapters slowly become longer as the book progresses but they're never too long.

Tolstoy wrote this story in a series of instalments over two years, kind of like newsletters, and they're now compiled together as a novel. I really liked reading a few chapters at a time because it felt like I was reading a serial newsletter.* I never thought that I would say I liked reading a book slowly over weeks but it's true with this book.

*RIP Tolstoy, you would've loved modern-day newsletters which instantly get attention across the world.

Before any definite step can be taken in a household, there must be either complete division or loving accord between husband and wife. When their relations are indefinite it is impossible for them to make any move.

The story starts with a simple situation that everyone can relate to—a family being upset. It is so mundane that I didn't feel like the story was written over a century ago. Sure, the setting is of the old days with governesses and the characters following the rules of old Society, but the situation didn't feel alien.

The whole book is an extended slice-of-life novel where we follow characters over the years doing all the regular things. We read about them going to each other's houses, having mundane conversations, eating meals, and worrying about daily life things like paying bills.

Amidst narrations of their lives, there are sprinkles of commentary on Russia's political and economic situation, trends in Society, and women's rights. We also see the way the country changed during that time.

As the story takes place over the years, we see the characters grow in different ways and their relationships evolve. Although the book is titled after Anna Karenina, there are several other main characters in the story. We follow all of them with their varied lives.

Whoever wrote that Pride and Prejudice is "just a bunch of people going to each other's houses" should read Anna Karenina. It isn't exactly slow-paced but it feels slow and calm because of the way it's written. It's genuinely the most mundane book that I've ever read. And because of that, it was a comforting read as well.

[...] life's usual answer to the most complex and insoluable questions. That answer is: live in the needs of the day, that is, find forgetfulness.

I enjoyed taking 15 minutes in the mornings to read a couple of chapters with my coffee before I rushed off to work. I liked falling into the slow lives of fictional people and their problems after a long day of dealing with my life.

The book became an escape that I could easily fall into in small pockets of time. If it wasn't so big and heavy, I would have taken it with me to read during my commutes too.

As it is a big book with small chapters, I didn't worry about not having enough time to read it. It's a conundrum. The chapters were short enough that I read them whenever I could. The book was long enough that I knew I couldn't finish it fast and hence didn't try to sprint through the chapters or cram them into every free minute.

I read the book as and when I felt like it, taking my time with the story and the characters. And it was lovely. It brought a slowness to my days that made me appreciate them more. It made me feel like my entire day wasn't a rush of me trying to get things done.

And hey, if a whole chapter of someone having breakfast and thinking about what's written in a newspaper is interesting, so is my day.

[...] the subdued animation that enlivened her face and seemed to flutter between her bright eyes and a scarcely perceptible smile while curved her rosy lips. It was as if an axcess of vitality so filled her whole being that it betrayed itself against her will, now in her smile, now in the light of her eyes. She deliberately tried to extinguish that light in her eyes, but it shone in spite of her faint smile.

After a lot of talk from other characters, we finally meet the main character on page 72. I loved the way Anna Karenina was introduced.

Tolstoy artfully introduced Anna from another character's perspective. I could so easily picture the scene in my mind. What a scene it was. The man glimpses her as she passes by him and notes, in a single glance, that she belongs to the best Society and "felt compelled to have another look at her."

Anna is the "best" woman. Lively, compassionate, friendly, clever, attentive, and charming. Everyone loves her and/or wants to be her. She has a high-ranking husband and is in a great position in Society. She is THE woman.

But, as we read more about her, we realize that all is not what it seems to be. She is lonely, despite how grand her life looks, and there is a lack of love in her life. Her much older husband is steadfast in his beliefs and is unable to provide her with the companionship that she craves.

So, when a younger man falls in love with her on sight and provides her with the attention she needs, she is swayed and her life changes drastically.

They say he's a religious, moral, honest, and wise man, but they do not see what I have seen. They do not know how for eight years he has been smothering my life, smothering everything that was alive in me, that he never thought I was a live woman, in need of love. They do not know how at every step he hurt me and remained self-satisfied.

Essentially, Anna Karenina is a book about a brilliant woman who chose love over a traditional married life and the consequences she had to face because of it.

Through Anna's story, we read about how the law isn't favourable towards women's choices, how Anna's once-shiny life completely changed, and how the people around her and her relationships changed because of her choices.

For most of the book, Anna Karenina is a character with dual sides. On one hand, she is charming, clever, etc. and everyone loves her. On the other hand, she is deeply unhappy and her life is "ruined" because of it. She presents herself brilliantly but is prone to swift mood changes and spirals in private.

I didn't specifically like or dislike her. Her life was like a drama that I followed. For some reason, despite being a normal character, I couldn't relate to her like I could with other characters in the book.

However, I did sympathise with her. Reading about her being anguished in love, unsure of which man and life to choose, and then dealing with the fallout of her choices tugged my heart. At one point, she laments "how strange and terrible that they are both Alexis" which really struck me. I thought about that line several times as I read the rest of the book.

I may not like Anna Karenina and her story but they certainly made an impression.

He looked at her as a man might look at a faded flower he had plucked, in which it was difficult for him to trace the beauty that had made him pick and so destroy it.

As I mentioned earlier, this book is more of a slice-of-life story than something with a proper central plot. What makes the slice-of-life story compelling to read is the character depth.

We get to know characters on a level unlike ever before. The narration tells us how a person thinks and how a person is viewed so we get a full picture of each person. We are introduced to their deepest desires and tiniest flaws. We see how they present themselves in different situations and also in the aftermath of certain events.

The novel was almost like a character study of various types of characters. It is hard to truly like or dislike any of them because we get to know them on a very personal level. Just like we don't ever fully like someone in our lives—there will always be tiny things that irk us—so is our view of the characters in this book.

There's a mix of showing and telling in the writing that I found nice. Tolstoy often tells us several paragraphs about a character while introducing them—including their vulnerabilities and strengths. We don't simply see a new character on the page, we get a ton of background on them as well. But afterwards, as they interact with other characters, we realize more about them through those scenes.

I love the depth with which we see characters. I've always liked books with character and relationship depth but hadn't come across one like Anna Karenina. This is a new standard now.

He was distinctly conscious of the simplicity, purity, and rightness of that life, and was convinced that in it he would find satisfaction, peace, and dignity, the absence of which was so painful to him.

I will say, my favourite character was Constantine Dmitrievich Levin. He is SO awkward in social settings and makes the silliest mistakes that I couldn't bear to read those scenes in the beginning. But as the book went on, I couldn't help but like him.

Sure, he may be awkward and may constantly struggle with finding a purpose for his life, but he sticks to his beliefs and takes care of his loved ones. He may fumble but he does his best with what resources he has. He is prone to deep mood changes but he gets out of them well enough and makes sure that doesn't affect the people around him.

In no other book would I enjoy an entire chapter about a landowner working on the field alongside peasants and, after struggling for a while, finding joy in the repetitive motion of mowing. It probably says a lot about me that I liked Levin because of how he yearned for a simple life where he worked hard and enjoyed the fruits of his day.

The scene where he and Kitty finally confess to one another by writing acronyms on the table where the other had to understand what the acronyms stood for and respond??? That scene has my WHOLE HEART. What a way to confess. Wow. And here I thought only we in modern-day wrote and understood things like ilysmbidkhttybikydlmb.

There are no conditions in life to which a man cannot accustom himself, especially if he sees that every one around him lives in the same way.

My annotations in the book are all over the place. Some pages are FILLED with scribbles and underlines and some chapters have nothing. Although I went in with the idea to annotate, sometimes I couldn't help but just get caught in the current of the writing and forget about annotating.

Sometimes, it takes an entire chapter to make a point and I couldn't annotate all of it, of course. And other times, multiple sentences on one page were quote-worthy sentences. I have so many quotes tabbed and it's a hard decision to pick only a few to include in this review.

That's the thing. In between the life stories and character studies, there are several deeply insightful sentences that made me pause. Even now, as I flip through the book to pick quotes to add to this post, I'm struck by how poignant they are.

Lines like "She knew that the freedom now permitted made it easy for a man to turn a girl's head, and knew how lightly men regarded an offence of that kind" show up out of nowhere amidst the paragraphs.

Reading this book makes me wish I could read Anna Karenina in Russian. If the translated version's writing is so beautiful, how good the original must be?

That's what it is, my friend! One of the two things: either you confess that the existing order of Society is just, and then uphold your rights; or else own that you are enjoying that unfair privileges, and I do, and take them with pleasure.

When the story wasn't wrapping in the last 10%, I knew that the ending wouldn't be good. I was right. I hated the ending.

It was very rushed. I understand why it might have had to be that way but I still don't like it. It was so sudden and there wasn't much build-up to the big scene. The build-up and the result were in the same chapter, which felt much unlike the rest of the book.

Secondly, the last chapter was just not my thing. I'm glad that it was a nice conclusion to Levin's story but it felt more like the reader was being preached to about God and faith. I am not into that so, personally, did not like it.

overall

It was a lovely book. Reading it was an experience. I enjoyed most of it and I would love to reread it someday, adding new annotations to the ones from my first read.

Yes, it is a large book, but it doesn't feel that big when you actually read it. The short chapters and easy writing make it easier to read than many shorter books.

I read the book as a leisure read and did not look at it from a literary criticism angle. Required reading wasn't a big thing in my school so I'm not used to that. However, I am interested in seeing some critical pieces of the book because I'm sure there's a lot that I missed—like the significance of trains in the book.

I highly recommend it!

chat with me!

Have you read Anna Karenina or any other works by Leo Tolstoy? What did you think of them? Or are they on your TBR, waiting to be read? Do you have any thoughts on Anna Karenina from a critical angle? Tell me in the comments!

photo of Sumedha

Sumedha spends her days reading books, bingeing Kdramas, drawing illustrations, and blogging while listening to Lo-Fi music. Read more ➔

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2 comments

  • Karla says:

    I've always been scared of reading Anna Karenina because it's a big book and it seems so daunting but you've convinced me! This is such a funny, thorough and funny review so thank you! 💗

    Reply ➔
  • Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    I always enjoy bog books but I wasn't sure if I would like this. Now you have convinced me to try this. I will get it one day. Amazing review!

    Reply ➔