Tolstoy: the beginning

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Barnes & Noble Classics edition
Right now, at this very moment, I am 300 pages into the over 700-page Anna Karenina. It’s a monstrous book, and probably could effectively function as a doorstop, but here’s the thing: it’s wonderful.

Tolstoy is intimidating. His novels are giant, with about ten main characters each, and everyone has a first name, nickname, and several family names. He uses them interchangeably, and several characters have the same name. It’s like he wanted us to be confused.

But once you sift through, say, fifty pages, you get one of the most stunning portraits of characters you may ever encounter. Because it’s so long, each character is fleshed out to the extreme. You know their hopes, their dreams, and their failings. Tolstoy’s skill is switching tones to match whatever character you’re reading at the time. Alexey tends to have long, rather boring, paragraphs where he considers state matters, who might’ve bested him lately, and anything to do with work. His wife is hardly in his thoughts, except when he is being embarrassed by her and must coldly and mechanically work out how he will maintain his good reputation.

In contrast, Vronsky’s thoughts are full of Anna and money. These are his primary concerns, and when you’re reading the character, you’re reading what seems to be his actual thoughts. He loves Anna desperately, but is heading into dire straits at this point of the novel, trying to reconcile his feelings with the fact that his family disapproves and is withholding cash.

Tolstoy’s ability to transport a reader into a character’s mind is absorbing, not to mention wonderfully skillful. It moves you through pages that could be considered dense, or maybe wordy, with vigor.

Not to mention, his characters are flawed. They are all so flawed—but you care about them anyway. Anna has (spoiler) at this point told her husband she is in love with another man. She begins passionately, feeling relieved that everything is in the open. She feels freed. Many literary heroines would stop their development there. Not Anna. As she begins to consider what she’s done, she becomes terrified. Things that aren’t “supposed” to matter to main characters matter greatly to her. She second guesses herself when the social standing she’s always enjoyed is threatened, and is enormously tempted to take Alexey’s offer that things can just “return to how they were” when he brings up her beloved son. Anna wants to continue to benefit from her high place in society and from Alexey’s protection.

All the same, she’s angry at his indifference, while being ashamed of herself for her infidelity in a twisting cacophony of emotions. It makes Anna one of the most interesting protagonists I may have ever read. It felt like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Harry is feeling hurt, isolated, targeted while feeling guilty for lashing out at his friends. It’s a complex swirl of feeling that are so human, you forget the character is fictional.

But she is, at heart, a heroine, and realizes that despite the lure, she can’t go back to how life was. Beyond Vronsky as a person, she feels for the first time in a long time. She enjoys that passion in her heart, and maybe even the drama a little, because it adds some kind of excitement that has been missing from her life. Rather ignored and belittled by her husband on a day-to-day basis, she finds it’s impossible to go back. She makes a difficult decision that some readers condemn her for, but that you also understand fully. Because you don’t want her to go back, either.

Even when you know what happens in the end.

Sorry, I just went full English major on you there…for a full version of this review when I complete the book, please see Gandy Dancer literary journal’s website, section: blog.

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