Although the producers of romantic comedies would like us to believe that when the main characters kiss at the end, time stands still and they live happily ever after, anyone with a pulse knows that life keeps marching on. Setting aside Thomas Friedman’s valid global policy arguments for the moment, the world isn’t really flat. Relationships—even good ones—have their ups and downs. As a result, our lives are messy: sometimes wonderful, sometimes agonizing, sometimes both at once. ANNA KARENINA by Leo Tolstoy is a perfect illustration of this point.
As a former Comp Lit major, I approached this novel the way I imagine a Boston Marathon runner would approach the New York City Marathon—i.e., another great challenge. If you didn’t read this book in college, then it takes some chutzpah to pick it up for no apparent reason in your late 30s. Well, chutzpah or a few weeks off. Seven years ago, I found myself in this exact situation and thought, What the heck? I’d read most of the major classics in college, but this one hadn’t come up. It kept staring at me from across the room. So I picked it up and went to the beach.
I knew certain things about the book before I opened it. I’d heard the opening line, and I knew how it ended. I also figured, based on prior Russian novel reading experience, that there would be at least 40 characters with unpronounceable names.
The first line—“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—captivated me because it felt like a giant bucket that dozens of other novels could be poured into. So I was eager to see how Tolstoy would finish this thought. And I wasn’t disappointed. After that sweeping generalization, he throws us immediately into a household in an uproar: the husband has been cheating on his wife with their former governess. And that’s just the first page.
I loved this book, but I’m not going to lie. At times it felt like a monster movie or a pint of Chinese food: every time I finished a hundred pages, another 600 would appear. Although I was enjoying the book, I started to feel a bit demoralized and resentful. My vacation was evaporating, and I found myself looking forward with excessive eagerness to Anna’s throwing herself under the train.
Even though I knew the ending, I kept turning the pages because it wasn’t entirely clear how or why Anna would end up like that. Also, the other characters have equally compelling stories. The writing keeps everyone moving. One of the coolest features of this book is how cinematic it is: Tolstoy follows the characters like a cameraman. If someone enters a room where two people are talking, then one of them leaves to pursue some important action, the narration follows him out the door. The sheer flow of characters is brilliant.
In this busybusybusy world we live in, it might seem brazen to tackle something so dense and lengthy. It takes some stamina. But it also takes you somewhere important.