Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Penguin paperback cover of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

When I was younger, I definitely always imagined that the morning of my 23rd birthday would involve sleepily typing out a review of Anna Karenina at 3am in a scraggy Nintendo 3DS t-shirt. Except I think the fantasy may have had a lot more sambuca shots, party hats and uhh… fun. Did I know what sambuca was at twelve? Probably not. I kind of wish I didn’t at 23, to be honest. Yick.

Anyway. This review is a couple of days late, but I couldn’t work out what to say I was busy sleeping and getting older. Ah well, I’ve written a lot about the novel over the last month, so click the following for my thoughts on the relevant parts:

And for those of you that haven’t been avidly following my every rambling thought on Anna Karenina (shame on you!), here’s a normal, sparkly review instead.
Plot summary: Anna Karenina seems to have everything – beauty, wealth, popularity and an adored son. But she feels that her life is empty until the moment she encounters the impetuous officer Count Vronsky. Their subsequent affair scandalizes society and family alike and soon brings jealously and bitterness in its wake. Contrasting with this tale of love and self-destruction is the vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and a meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.
You’d be amazed how hard it was to find a plot summary that didn’t make it feel like an 800 page 19th Century Russian classic… oh wait. That’s the thing though – it really doesn’t feel like that. It shocked me how easy it was to get into the story and how accessible the language was. I wouldn’t have said it was an easy read, but I didn’t even have to refer to the list of characters at the front – somehow my head managed to keep the characters and their relationships straight without any trouble at all. It was a nice surprise.

Speaking of characters, I had the Wordsworth edition, translated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Story good, translation not so good. They tend to change the characters names as well as the prose, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Surely names are names, regardless of language? As an illustration – the bloke down the road is called Steve. The mechanic in the shop is called Steve. My best friend’s Dad is called Steve. The Russian Prince Stephen Arkadyevich Oblonsky, however, should not be called Steve.

Seriously, they translated it as ‘Steve.’ A minor point in the whole grand scheme of things, but come on. It went ‘clunk’ in my head every time I read it. Idiots.

I do seem the have got the whole character thing backwards though. I read a lot of the other bloggers’ Read Along posts, I noticed that the vast majority didn’t really like Anna herself as a person while I really, really did. She actually reminded me of myself quite a lot. I don’t mean her circumstances, because obviously I’ve never abandoned my husband and child to run off with another man, but we just seem to have vaguely similar thought patterns. Not necessarily in a good way – she ‘mind-reads’ and works herself round in circles to end up at the worst possible result. I don’t know, I just kind of felt for her. A lot of her situation was her own doing, but if this happened in modern society she would clearly be on some sort of medication. 

I just want to hug her and give her a cup of tea. She gave up everything for Vronsky, of course she’s worried about losing him.

    And recalling all the cruel words he had uttered, Anna invented other words which he evidently had wished to say and could have said to her, and she grew more and more exasperated.
   ‘I do not hold you,’ he might have said. ‘You may go where you please. You probably did not wish to be divorced from your husband so that you could go back to him. Go back! If you need money, I will give you some. How many roubles do you want?’
   All the cruellest words that a coarse man could say he, in her imagination, said to her, and she did not forgive him for them any more than if he had really said them.      

It did surprise me how the novel isn’t actually that much about Anna herself, considering that she’s the title character. Obviously she’s a part of it, but the other five or so main characters just have as much ‘screen-time’ as she does, if not more. The narrative changes whose point of view it follows regularly, but Anna and Vronsky’s situation can be left alone for many chapters at a time.

A lot of the other bloggers seem to have a thing for Levin, which I don’t really understand. I mean, he’s acceptable as a secondary character but I just didn’t think he stood out in any way. He seemed fairly flat, and a lot of the parts in his POV involved huge ranty monologues about farming or politics.

Good Lord, the farming. The huge majority of Part Three is just Levin talking with his acquaintances about farming, and it was fairly disheartening to fall in love with the book during Parts One and Two and then have to skim 80 pages about crop rotation. Then again, much later in the book, Levin goes on a field trip to an election and I once again wanted to hurl the book at Leo Tolstoy’s head. Even he didn’t understand what was going on, so how was I meant to!?

I really can’t emphasise enough how tedious these parts are, but it’s partly because the interesting parts of the book are so accessible that these stand out even more. The experiences of Anna, Vronsky, Kitty and a few others are fascinating and the author writes in such a way that you may as well be in their head. There’s a lot of description, but it doesn’t really halt the flow of the book. 

And the ending, oh the ending. I still think that Parts Seven and Eight should have been the other way round – finishing off the 800 page novel with a stodgy Levin chapter just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – but the real ending was marvellous. I mean, it hurt me to my very core, but it’s one I’ll definitely remember for a long, long time. I suppose it does fit in with the message Tolstoy was trying to convey about adulterous women getting their comeuppance. Still, like I said above, I liked Anna!

So, to finally wrap-up a whole month of reading Anna Karenina… I really liked this book. I’m 100% positive it didn’t need to be anywhere near that long, nor did it need such lengthy, dry conversations about farming and politicals (or, in occasional and suicide-inducing moments, both), but I felt that the other parts more than make up more it. It’s actually a surprisingly accessible lengthy classic about a woman who gives up everything for love.

Read my thoughts on the upcoming Anna Karenina movie! 


  1. Laura says:

    It's your birthday? Happy Birthday!! 23 is going to be awesome, I'm sure!

    And I still have a thing for Levin. Cause he's amazing and has morals and Anna wasn't in these sections which was perfectly ok with me. DAMN we have different thoughts about this book!

  2. fredamans says:

    I love Sambuca, but black not white.

    Happy belated birthday… you're still a young pup.

  3. Happiest of birthdays to you!!!

    I need to read this book! I love just about anything set in Russia but have yet to read this one.

  4. I loved how epic this book was and I was so impressed with how Tolstoy wrote emotions. Like you I actually really liked Anna and felt for her. I did like Levin also but agree there was too much talk of farming.

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