Full disclosure: I started to read Anna Karenina in the early 2000s when Oprah picked it as the first book for her book club. Being a teenager and feeling rather mature for my age, I was sure I could handle the massive tome because it promised romance and scandal. I quickly quit the book before finishing the first of eight parts because, well, it’s not really about romance and scandal. There were a hell of a lot of passages about farming and peasants and crap I didn’t care about. (Not gonna lie, didn’t really care about those bits this time either.) It collected dust on my shelf along with a few other classic books I picked up and never finished (don’t buy a bunch of Jane Austens unless you’ve read one and enjoyed it) until this year. I decided this year would be the year I finished this Russian classic. Reading roughly ten pages per day for four months, I’ve finally conquered this beast.
Anna Karenina is a Russian society woman with a husband, Alexey Karenin, and a young son, Seryozha. She is summoned to her brother Stiva Oblonsky’s house to convince his wife, Dolly, to stay with him after she discovers his infidelity with their children’s governess. Anna, refined, self-possessed, and respected, is able to mend quickly the Oblonskys’ marriage with only a few words. She stays in Moscow to accompany her family to Dolly’s sister Kitty’s coming out ball.
At the same time, Konstantin Levin, a wealthy man who prefers an active, honest life in the countryside running his family’s estate, nervously anticipates his plan to propose to Kitty at the ball. He has loved her for years and worries she won’t return his feelings. He has a right to be nervous, as Kitty is smitten with the young and dashing Count Vronsky. Kitty and her mother, Princess Scherbatsky, are certain the Count will propose to Kitty at the ball. When Levin approaches Kitty with his proposal, she turns him down and he retreats, heartbroken, as he sees her face light up at the sight of Vronsky. Unfortunately for Kitty, Vronsky has been taken with Anna ever since he saw her disembark at the train station on her way to the Oblonskys’. He snubs Kitty at the ball to dance with Anna, creating a stir. Anna, who up to this point has been dispassionately content in her marriage, is taken aback by her strong attraction to Vronsky. She flees Moscow to return to her husband and son in St. Petersburg, feeling awful for causing Kitty’s heartbreak, and hoping to return to her normal life. It’s not meant to be, as Vronsky follows her back to St. Petersburg on the same train.
Over the course of a year, their flirtation turns into a full-blown affair. Anna leaves behind her religious friend Lydia Ivanova in favor of Vronsky’s cousin, Betsy, who encourages their liaison. Rumors fly until Karenin can no longer turn a blind eye, and the marriage is irretrievably broken. Meanwhile, Levin nurses his broken heart with work on his farm, and worrying about his tubercular brother, Nikolai. Dolly realizes her marriage to Stiva will never truly be mended, and she’ll have to deal with his unfaithfulness. Kitty feels embarrassed about her refusal of Levin’s proposal and her misguided attraction to Vronsky, choosing to spend time at a European spa where a new friend helps her find pleasure in helping others.
When Anna becomes pregnant with Vronsky’s child their tryst becomes public knowledge, but Karenin refuses to grant Anna a divorce. Anna decides to put her happiness first, recognizing her marriage to Karenin has always been loveless. Having been denied true love and passion for so long, she ignores the rules of society and suffers greatly for it. The other erstwhile couple, Levin and Kitty, must mend their wounded hearts and forgo their embarrassment to find they might be soulmates.
While reading Anna Karenina, there were parts I sped through while other parts seemed to drone on forever. I enjoyed the chapters focused on Anna, the Oblonskys, and the Scherbatskys. Reading about the intricacies of Russian society, with its standards that practically imprisoned its women while letting its men get away with murder, was interesting because double standards between the sexes persist to this day. Dolly forgives Stiva for cheating on her with their governess, yet we see him later with a new ballerina girlfriend, cheerfully unaware or uncaring towards Dolly’s feelings about their failed love life. Stiva is not shunned or outcast by society; rather he is still well liked and attends parties, maintaining his place in society with no ill effects towards him. His actions only offend Dolly. Anna, on the other hand, is cast aside by society after making her relationship with Vronsky public. Even Vronsky’s cousin, Betsy, who became close to Anna and encouraged the affair, avoids Anna until a divorce can be obtained because she doesn’t want her reputation to be linked to Anna. Keep in mind Betsy herself is known to have had many affairs! The only difference is Betsy has kept her affairs politely private while Anna, delighting in experiencing love for the first time after years of marriage to the cold Karenin, decides not to abide by society’s demand for discretion. Vronksy’s mother, at first charmed by Anna, similarly turns on her and encourages Vronsky to move on to a young Princess with a sparkling reputation. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the novel Vronsky avoids contact with his mother because he’s embarrassed that she’s well-known for her affairs, and then he carries on his own affair! High society is looked upon as proper, civilized, educated, and cultured, yet infidelity is freely accepted as long as certain rules are followed, and it’s common and accepted practice to destroy a person who doesn’t rigidly follow the set rules. Underneath all the refinement is hypocrisy, cruelty, and barbarism.
I found Levin’s chapters mostly boring. It was a lot of Levin waxing philosophic about his agnosticism, his love for Kitty, hating Kitty, loving Kitty again, being happy about Kitty, being disappointed by Kitty, blah blah shut up. Reading about his brothers was dull as well, as Nikolai was dying the whole time and generally being obnoxious, and the other brother talked about his boring book. The endless discussions about politics and farming and other topics that generally do not interest me didn’t help either.
I found Levin annoying. He enjoys things only when they suit his expectations, and becomes judgmental, pouty, and mopey when he’s forced to face reality. When he first starts mowing with the peasants, he treasures the hard, honest work compared to bureaucratic and political jobs favored by society. Then, he gets annoyed when the peasants don’t meet his expectations by disagreeing with him, or doing things differently than he wishes. He enjoys helping Dolly and seeing her children, but then he grows to despise her for how she’s educating the children. He loves Kitty, but when she’s crushed by Vronsky’s indifference to her Levin is happy to hear about her suffering. He enjoys seeing Nikolai until a few hours pass and he remembers how tiring it can be to listen to his political views. He’s so overjoyed to marry Kitty he cries on their wedding day, and then gets annoyed when he realizes he has to sacrifice some of his personal time to be with his wife, and that she has desires of her own. He ends up disliking everyone he meets because they don’t live up to his impossible expectations. It even takes until the last chapter for him to feel anything for his baby! Sure, he loves Kitty, but he’s constantly jealous when other men pay attention to her, to an almost psychotic degree. He soon realizes he’s been foolish, gets over his jealousy, and everything’s fine until a new man talks to Kitty and then it’s the same song and dance all over again. The final part of the book focuses on Levin and I skimmed through most of it because I didn’t give a crap about him. He was such a whiny, self-pitying drip I wondered if Kitty lost a few brain cells after Vronsky spurned her.
This book was not written for modern audiences, and therefore goes into detail modern books would generally skip over, or cover in fewer pages. It’s no wonder the writers of the Lost Generation seem to have written much shorter, pithier books in contrast. They must have been tired, raised on these enormous behemoths. There were certainly page-turning parts, but every time I got to a part about bureaucracy and Levin’s boring crap I wondered if I could even finish the book. I much preferred the analysis of society presented in Anna’s chapters to the analysis of faith and work in Levin’s chapters. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not a book I’m going to tell everyone else they NEED to read.
Rating: 3 out of 5 speeding trains
2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge Categories: A Book At Least 100 Years Older Than You, A Book That’s More Than 600 Pages, A Book From Oprah’s Book Club, A Book Translated Into English, A Book Set in Europe