This is a novel that I have read about five or six times now, and will always come back to. The characters and settings are so vivid, and so real, that it feels as if we, as readers, are in early 19th Century Russia with them.
From the calculated coldness of Prince Vasili, to the dashed innocent hopes, and pure love of Pierre Bezukhov, to the sadly cynical Andrei Bolkonski, Tolstoy creates men of the world who impact those around them, and who serve as contrasts to one another yet are a million miles away from being cliches.
Tolstoy even manages to keep a hint of controversy in the relationship between Pierre's first wife Helene, and her brother Anatole, whom, in early drafts, shared an incestuous relationship. As it is, only hints of this remain, though Helene is, in a sense, a player in deciding whom her brother will place his affections on - shown in her suggestions he take up Natasha, the beautiful, vivacious fiance of Andrei Bolkonski, who seems to come alive in her presence, and who is, unwittingly to all involved, slowly becoming the object of Pierre's affection.
It is beutifully written, and contains such historical detail regarding the Napoleonic Wars, that it is impossible not to find the War segments of the book interesting, even when the key characters are not featured. I have to admit that there has not been a time I have read it when I have not shed a tear. At the sweetness with which Pierre - then very much in love with her - speaks to Natasha when she thinks all her hopes of happiness have fallen to pieces; at the resignation of Andrei Bolkonski on the retreat from Moscow; at the end of Platon Karataev; at the resolution of the love triangle of sorts between Nicholas, Mary and Sonya, and the acceptance of the last of the reality of the situation; at the loss of young Petya in defending his country; Pierre running off at the last minute to join the war in a fight for Natasha as much as for Russia.
For me it is the intricacies and detail in this work that makes it stand out so much. Everything interweaves, and plots flow into one another as the characters lives with each other. I first read it at 17, and now at 25 I still read it over and over again, and it was this novel that began my appreciation for Tolstoy's work generally, and have since read - amongst others - Anna Karenina, Resurrection, Hadji Murat and many of his short stories. The appreciation I have for his work is one that, like that which I have for Jane Austen, will be lifelong.
For all the bloodshed and anguish that one would expect in a book set in this period, and all the interweaving problems and triumphs of the characters, my favourite scene will always remain between Pierre and Natasha, when he goes to her after she feels her life has crumbled, and tells her that if he were not himself, but the best of men, and unattached, he would instantly ask for her hand in marriage, and her love.
I would recommend this to anyone - it is 110% worth the time and patience required for a first read through of the novel.