Book review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

4/5 stars

Audible version, narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Partly because of the sheer volume of this book and partly because I have a bit of a hard time with Russian authors, I’ve been putting off Anna Karenina for a long time, knowing that somewhere down the line I’d simply have to give it a try. When the audiobook presented itself on sale, I took that as a sign that the time was now. That, and coincidentally two of the most recent books I read both referenced Anna Karenina and the famous opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

I was expecting it to be a bit of a slog, but actually really enjoyed almost all of it. There were some bits that went on and on about local politics or the day-to-day business of farming that weren’t quite that interesting, but overall it was really engaging. Of course there was the usual naming confusion that’s pretty much inevitable with Russian novels (and is one of the reasons I’ve had trouble with them in the past), but I actually found it easy enough to follow – you just have to pay a little attention.

There are a lot of characters in this novel, but the main two storylines are those of Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin and all the other characters are connected to these two main ones in some way. While their lives intersect the two of them only ever meet once, towards the end of the book.

Anna, as most people may already know, leaves her husband and son to be with her lover – Count Vronsky. This is of course a great scandal and leads to some difficult times and decisions for both Anna and Vronsky. Most have also probably heard how tragically this affair ends, but in case you haven’t, I won’t spoil it for you.

Levin is a country gentleman, but at heart he is a farmer. He is most at ease when he is at home taking an active role in the farm work on his estate, and when he is out in nature. He keeps looking for ways to revolutionise farming, and for ways to get the peasants more involved and set them up to be in charge of their own destinies. He is also passionately in love with Ekaterina “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya.

Both Anna and Levin are struggling with big questions in their lives. For Anna the main struggle (as I see it) is that she craves love and understanding, but she is also proud and jealous and doesn’t know how to talk about what troubles her. She is passionate and wild and has a crazy temper, and because she is unable to talk about how she really feels, she starts to spiral downwards and becomes gradually more miserable and paranoid.

Levin’s struggle is a spiritual one. He wants to believe in God but has trouble with religion. He is confronted with death and life’s brevity and struggles to find meaning, to find peace. I find his struggle and his whole character very relatable, and definitely enjoyed the Levin parts the most. It’s a testament to Tolstoy’s writing that the life and struggles of a Russian man towards the end of the 19th century are still so relatable today, to a modern Western European woman.

On the one hand the characters all seem a bit exaggerated. They all have these intense emotions and seem to go from one end of the spectrum to the other in rapid succession. They resolve to act a certain way, or say or do certain things and then for some minor reason that they blow out of proportion (this is especially true of Anna), or indeed because of something undefinable, they end up doing the opposite or just not doing or saying the thing they intended to. On the other hand, human beings are a little bit like this. And I found the psychological depth and inner monologues of the characters very fascinating.

I was gripped by the lives and the fates of these vivid characters and always managed to lose myself in the story when I picked it up. I also really enjoyed the ending and found it very uplifting and meaningful.

A note on the narration: I was thrilled to see this was narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal, as I love her voice and really enjoyed her reading of The Bell Jar, and it was another thing that pushed me to finally buy this book. In hindsight I’m not sure Ms Gyllenhaal was the best choice for this one though, as she has exactly the same kind of tone as she did for The Bell Jar, and while it worked really well for that one, I feel like Anna Karenina calls for more of a dramatic reading – what with all the characters and emotions flying about. Like she’ll read in a perfectly calm and measured voice something that a character supposedly shrieked. And I didn’t feel that there was much differentiation between the voices of the different characters. But it wasn’t hard to follow at all, and by all means she does have a pleasant voice.

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