Thursday, November 15, 2012

Anna Karenina

I've wanted to read Anna Karenina for awhile but it has always been kind of intimidating to me like so many classics are. I really started wanting to read it after reading Mark O'Connell's write-up in The Millions last year (oh my gosh! It's almost time for those Year in Reading posts to start again! Yay!) and there's nothing like someone who can write beautifully about a book to persuade me to read it. What O'Connell says about the book ends up being what I loved most about it as well, but when I mentioned wanting to read it on the blog I got a little bit intimidated! BUT! There's a new movie coming out and one of my friends said the book was good and she was planning to reread it so I kind of tagged along and ended up loving it!

O'Connell wrote this about the book, "His compassion and clarity are such that I often found myself thinking that if God existed and had sat down to write a novel, this is what it would look like."

I agree. The thing that's so impressive about the book is how well drawn every character is and how real they feel. I don't know what point of view the book employs but I don't think I've ever read another book that so makes me feel like I am indeed given God's point of view. It made me think a lot about life and myself and relationship dynamics actually. This isn't going to be a proper review, just stuff I thought about while reading the book, I couldn't possibly review it! Also, all the spoilers, so if you don't know what happens and wish to remain unspoiled, give this a miss!

I feel like I've read a lot of books about infidelity in the last year and I have to admit when I got to the end of Anna's story, I desperately wanted to read something where people had healthy reactions to things! But it's kind of interesting that there are so many stories about it, what exactly is our fascination? Anyway, the book opens with the story of Anna's brother, Oblonsky, having had an affair and devastating his wife. This is interesting only in that while his wife, Dolly, is upset, no one else really cares in society--the way they will when Anna and Vronsky get it on. A woman cheating on her husband is a much bigger deal and this is established easily in the book.

Despite his philandering ways, I kind of really liked Oblonsky? He seemed very sanguine to me, the kind of person who is very warm in person and sociable (he is, apparently, a master at coordinating social events so there are interesting combinations of people talking to each other!) and has genuine affection for lots of people even if he doesn't always understand exactly how or why the are feeling what they do!

I also loved Levin, of course, how could I not love the character who overthinks everything and takes it all dead seriously? I really enjoyed his relationship with Kitty and his many musings. Admittedly, I struggled through the section about the farm because I lack a really good understanding of Russian history and also farms, but that was the only section of the book I found difficult. Even though there are many many sections of the book that seem to be about very ordinary things, I loved these characters and I actually found it difficult to put the book down at times!

I thought Kitty and Levin's version of a passionate relationship (i.e. Levin's insane jealousy) was more amusing than annoying (though it was both, but hey you had to create your own excitement back then I guess) but there was this one part where Kitty accuses him of always ascribing the worst motivations to her which I immediately realized I am guilty of doing as well! Well I mean not to Kitty but to the people that matter the most, I think it's a defense mechanism. Anytime you care deeply about someone, you feel vulnerable and attempt to control getting hurt before they can hurt you. Anyway, though, they always managed to sort things out, thankfully!

Another Kitty section I enjoyed was after she first refused Levin and Vronksy ran off with Anna, she was quite upset and they went out of country and she met Varenka and Madame Stahl. And she's enamored of them both, but finds Madame Stahl to be very fascinating, but when her father comes and has a different opinion it's like all the...ugh I don't know the word! falls away and the woman just seems ordinary again. It's sooo true! The way the people we respect most feel about things can really change the way we seem them as well. It's all these little touches in the book I so enjoyed, this sharp insight into human behavior.

I don't know why this book is ever sold as a grand love story. I guess there's something about forbidden love that makes people think "wow you must really love someone" if you're willing to toss aside your place in society and leave your husband and child for them. But...that's not really true. This idea of passionate love being superior to all other kinds of love makes me sad. I don't think that's Tolstoy's position at all to clarify. Anna becomes more and more obsessed with Vronsky's undying love, constantly feeling that he has stopped loving her. Their relationship is a constant power play and sounds completely miserable. And I think when you do throw everything aside for another person like Anna does, the fear that they will leave you does end up crippling you because you've bet everything on them. And they can never really live up to what you probably want from them.

The final section of the book Levin finally finds his peace. And I loved this section, too, where he has this huge insight and then thinks he will immediately be a better man. But then he falls right back into his old ways. It reminded me of one of Justin McRobert's early songs about how despite conversion, he's still staying up too late and spilling his coffee when he drives other words, nothing on the most basic level has changed.

I'm sure I've already forgotten to mention a lot of the stuff about the book that I wanted to. It had its own kind of humor I enjoyed and big weighty issues. There were a few nice little touches about equality for women. But mostly I just really loved the characters, I loved the way it made me think about how we relate and how we misunderstand each other, and how there's a whole world going on inside another person that we only get tiny parts of. It really did feel like having God's POV.

I read this book on a schedule so I'd have it finished by the time the movie released but I just realized yesterday that it only opens in limited markets tomorrow so I'm pretty sure that won't be anywhere close to me! But the week it opens wide, I'll have a fun giveaway which includes a copy of the book so make sure to check back!

Did you know there have been 13 adaptations of Anna Karenina?!? I haven't seen any of them. Apparently the early films can be blamed for this being told as a grand sweeping romance. (I can't remember where I read that but I did some reading after finishing) Also, the Banana Republic has an Anna Karenina collection.

Okay I know tons of people have read this book and probably have much smarter more insightful things to say about it! I wish to hear it all! Also, I'm looking forward to reading War & Peace next year, hope you'll join me!


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