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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love and Anna, 13 Sept. 2006
This review is from: Anna Karenina (Wordsworth Classics) (Paperback)
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That line opens and sets the tone of "Anna Karenina," a tangled and tragic tale of nineteenth century Russia. Tolstoy's story of lovers and family is interlaced with razor-sharp social commentary and odd moments that are almost transcendent. In other words, this is a masterpiece.

When Stepan Oblonsky has an affair with the governess, his wife says that she's leaving him, and now the family is about to disintegrate. Stepan's sister Anna arrives to smooth over their marital problems, and consoles his wife Dolly until she agrees to stay. But on the train there, she met the outspoken Countess Vronsky, and the countess's dashing son, who is semi-engaged to Dolly's sister Kitty.

Anna and Vronsky start to fall in love -- despite the fact that Anna has been married for ten years, to a wealthy husband she doesn't care about, and has a young son. Even so, Anna rejects her loveless marriage and becomes the center of scandal and public hypocrisy, and even becomes pregnany by Vronsky. As she prepares to jump ship and get a divorce, Anna becomes a victim of her own passions...

That isn't the entire story, actually -- Tolstoy weaves in other plots, about disintegrating families, new marriages, and the melancholy Levin's constant search for God, truth, and goodness. Despite the grim storyline about adultery, and the social commentary, there's an almost transcendent quality to some of Tolstoy's writing. It's the most optimistic tragic book I've ever read.

For some reason, Tolstoy called this his "first novel," even though he had already written some before that. Perhaps it's because "Anna Karenina" tackles so many questions and themes, and does so without ever dropping the ball. No wonder it's so long and imposing -- Tolstoy covered a lot of ground in here.

And while "Anna Karenina" was not the first book he wrote, it is probably the deepest and most moving. Tolstoy steeps the book in social commentary, and his personal philosophies. It's also one of those books that takes a very long time to move itself forward -- Tolstoy's writing is slow and ponderous, with a lot of serious discussion about religion and relationships. But his intense, slightly rough writing is worth it.

In some tragic books, you get the feeling that the author really despises his characters, and doesn't really care what happens to them. Tolstoy never gives you that feeling -- no matter how annoying his characters are, they always have something interesting or endearing. No caricatures at all -- even Anna's irritating, arrogant brother is given some quirks to make him seem real.

Oddly enough, the most moving character here is not Anna, but Konstantin Levin -- the tortured, passionate landowner is so earnest that it's difficult not to care about him. Apparently he was Tolstoy's alter ego, which explains his depth. But Anna and Vronsky are strong leads, a passionate pair who are both selfish and seductive, but never boring.

A beautiful look at living right vs. living wrong, "Anna Karenina" is a truly magnificent book. This book is undoubtedly Tolstoy's opus, and a stunning look at human nature.
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