Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Image from Musings of a Book Lover
This is my first review as part of the Outside the Box Challenge hosted by Kate at Musings of a Book Lover.  I chose Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as my read for "To the Screen," which asks readers to read a book that's been adapted to the big screen.  I've read several books already that have been made into movies - some I loved, some I hated (Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part II, I'm looking at you!!), but the recent adaptation of Anna Karenina with Kiera Knightly intrigued me, so I decided to give the novel a shot.

I actually began the novel last fall while flying out to Las Vegas for the NCTE conference.  Although it took me a while to get into the plot and used to Tolstoy's overly detailed writing style (and to keep all those Russian surnames straight!), I was enjoying the story; however, I picked up several new releases by some of my favorite authors while at NCTE, put Anna Karenina down, and never picked it back up.

As part of my book and blogging resolutions for the new year, I decided to try audiobooks.  Although I took easily to ebooks, I hadn't yet jumped on the audiobook train.  I definitely retain more when I'm the one reading and seeing the words on the page rather than just listening to someone read to me.  Faced with a one hour round trip commute to work every day as well as two massive, classical tomes on my TBR list (Anna Karenina and Les Miserables), I decided to take the audiobook plunge.  I was wary, so I found a free app boasting several thousand free, classic audiobooks called Libervox.  The narrators are volunteers, so they are not perfect, but I could deal.  I started at the beginning of Anna Karenina because it had been a few months since I had last touched it.  The first book flew by, and I was easily pulled back into the story.  However, I experienced problems with book two.  The quality of the narration was beginning to interfere with the story.  Whereas the first part of Anna Karenina had been narrated by one person, each chapter in book two was narrated by someone different.  Not too terribly troubling except some of the narrators were terrible!  One didn't read loudly enough, another was reading in an echoey room, a third constantly shifted while reading creating distracting background noise, and the fourth and final attempted to read Count Vronsky and his fellow soldiers with a faux male voice so over-the-top I had to turn off the narration.  You get what you paid for, right?

I wasn't convinced I needed to drop $40.00 dollars on a quality audiobook I was only going to listen to once though.  Then, lightbulb moment, one of my other bookish resolutions was to utilize my public library more.  My school library doesn't carry audiobooks, but we subscribe to NC-Live that has tons of free audio and e-books, one of which was Anna Karenina.  I downloaded it and was immediately rewarded with an expressive, engaging narrator.  Finally, I was able to lose myself in the story and boy did I.  Several times while listening, I would gasp, cry out, or otherwise react to the events unfolding before me.

Anna Karenina is known by many to be Tolstoy's pièce de résistance, and I can see why.  The story is epic despite the fact it mostly chronicles the intricacies of daily living.  It is this complex focus on the minutiae of daily life, though, that makes the novel so compelling.  We've all been heartbroken like Kitty, in love like Anna, unsure of our relationship status like Dolly and jealous, jealous, jealous of friends and lovers alike like all the woman in Tolstoy's fictional world.  (I remain, however, less than interested in the minutiae of scything or hunting snipe.)  This complicated, introspective meditation on passion and human nature that I loved ultimately became the thing that grated on my nerves towards the end of the novel.

Note: I'm not sure if you can spoil a classic; even before reading Anna Karenina, I knew how it was going to end, but just in case, spoilers will henceforth ensue.

I pitied every single character in Tolstoy's novel, but I was rooting for Anna and Vronsky even as I pitied Alexey's losing battle with propriety and his obvious inner struggle to maintain his wife and the facade of a normal household and family.  However, once the lovers had won, the predictable thrill of the chase wore off and was replaced by a never-ceasing litany of real and imagined jealousies on the part of Anna.  Her constant worrying refrain that "Yes, that's it, he must be in love with another woman" made me want to shake her.  "What did you expect?!" I'd shout.  "The man had no qualms going after a married woman!  And even despite that fact, there is no certifiable evidence he is cheating on you now!  Your constant sniveling and petty arguments might drive him to it though!"  Retrospectively, I see that Tolstoy was attempting to show Anna descending into a state of paranoia and near madness.  He succeeds, but not without driving his reader to those extremes as well.

And even though I knew what was coming, and even though I was thoroughly sick of Anna and her inner monologue at this point, I was still dumbstruck and teary-eyed when she made her choice to leap under a moving train, forsaking her children and all others, in a reckless attempt to atone for all the wrong choices she had made and erase the guilt that bogged her down.

Kitty and Levin's sweet, slow-growing relationship was the bright spot amid the dark and torrid knots of lovers dotting Tolstoy's pages.  I cried happy tears as Kitty and Levin exchanged vows in chalk upon meeting again after she had first refused him.  In depicting these two characters and their relationship, Tolstoy's writing style shines with eloquent and profound statements of love and companionship.  Although I found Levin's affirmation of God in the final pages of the novel a bit preachy, it was fitting that he had the last word.

For days I thought about what I would write when I reviewed this novel, and what's come out isn't really a review.  I find it difficult to condense a plot so timeless yet so complex into a few paragraphs and really do it justice.  Suffice it to say that this novel and these characters are ones that impacted me, flaws and all, and are ones that I suggest all readers get to know personally to form their own assessment.

Best matched with anyone who has had a broken heart.


  1. I really must get around to reading this one. I think the idea of listening on audiobook really might help me tackle this hefty classic. I'm glad you were able to find a better narrator at your library -- like I mentioned on your resoltions post, I'm lucky to have a really excellent selection at my own library :)

    1. I highly recommend audiobooks as a way to overcome the sometimes slow pacing of a classic.

  2. I'm coming to your blog pretty late, but my eyes lit up when I saw that you reviewed Anna Karenina for the ROTB Category 1 - I did too! I just posted mine after watching the film yesterday and decided to go back through the ROTB posts and see what others had posted for Category 1. I've never really gotten into Audio Books, but maybe I'll try Tolstoy's War and Peace that way.

    Cheers from Brandy at

    1. Thanks Brandy! I've been a little remiss in posting recently. I'm a teacher, and April is a very busy month for me because we give finals, etc. in the first week of May. I've still been reading for the Out of the Box challenge, so I hope to have some new reviews posted soon! I have watched the movie yet, but it's on my Netflix.