No one is probably more upset by my three-star rating than I am. I love the Russian greats. I love epic novels. I love Tolstoy. And yet, despite Anna Karenina’s status as a classic, this one only mildly worked for me.
First of all, the story is great. I love the drama. Whether it be Kitty and Vronsky, Anna and Karenin, Dolly and Oblonsky, Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin, or Levin and Levin’s ego, I was entertained by the constant building up and tearing down of relationships. And these characters are wonderful. Their lives aren’t always the most exciting (though sometimes they are), but their internal dialogue really paints characters I want to know better.
I thought the foreshadowing was done exceptionally well, and though it was perhaps too evident what was going to happen in the end (it was the horse race that did it for me), the novel was not guilty of pandering to less observant readers. Further, some of the philosophical ramblings and moral considerations were entertaining and thought-provoking. Certainly it wouldn’t be Tolstoy without them.
For me, Anna K. lacked direction and focus, however. I’ve read War & Peace. I knew to expect long scenes and longer ramblings. But even with its epic cast and wide setting, W&P was a more tightly focused novel.
This lack of focus is evident in the title. Shouldn’t a book named Anna Karenina be about Anna Karenina? But really, it’s not. Sure, she’s a central figure and probably her story is the most memorable of the stories in the novel, but she’s not the most prominent character, nor is she necessarily the most well-drawn or interesting character.
The themes in Anna K. are strong and well-thought-out, yet Tolstoy’s net is cast so wide that many of them slip right through. What is this novel about? Well, love obviously. As well as gender roles, family, compassion, and… well… other stuff. Lots of other stuff.
I think these themes would’ve come through clearer had Tolstoy spent less time theorizing and more time on the building of characters. The story of Anna and Vronsky, for instance, appears more as a slide show than as a complete story: here is where we met *click* this is our first date *click* this is us post-shag *click*. I never really get a complete sense of who the people are. I understand what motivates Anna, but I want to see her decisions played out. I want to better feel—no, I want to see her turmoil played out. This turmoil is evident, as I mentioned earlier, in the thoughts of the characters, but I want see it unleashed on stage. The reader gets a vision of this turmoil during what I’ll call “the unraveling,” but I would’ve liked to have seen more of it earlier.
I’ve watched enough Russian films and read enough Russian stories to know that Russians do not like to be rushed. Yes, I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I have yet to encounter one. Any story that can be told in 45 minutes will probably be stretched to two hours in the hand of a Russian. That’s fine. I can respect that. But in Anna Karenina, not only is Tolstoy taking his time to tell the story, but he’s running around, letting his ADD get the best of him while telling the story.
It’s a good story. If you haven’t already read it, then you should. But it’s possible (very possible) your mind will wander. If this wandering mind bothers you, just consider it an exercise in better understanding the author. And remember, not everything Tolstoy wrote was quite so digressive (long-winded, yes; but not without coherence).