A transfixing classic with something for everyone
Book Review: Must Reads For Youth
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Ages 16+)
Anna Karenina, set in the 1870s Imperial Russia in which it was written, might seem like a world away, dazzling the reader with its torrid love affairs and striking complexity, yet its memorable characters are just as intensely human as ever.
Often referred to as one of the best novels of all time, Anna Karenina details the political, social, economic, and spiritual landscape of Imperial Russia.
Written by Leo Tolstoy (Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy in Russian), this world-renowned novel is a dual narrative of two 19th century high society women: Anna Karenina and Ekaterina “Kitty” Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya.
The eponymous Anna Karenina is the epitome of beauty and charm, married to a much older man, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, with whom she has her beloved son, Sergei “Seryozha” Alexeich Karenin.
By contrast, Kitty is young, caring, and honest as she begins navigating society in search of a marriage partner. Her relationship with Konstantin Levin, a hard-working and sincere man from the countryside, is central to this narrative.
However, Kitty is not the one to shock Russian high society with a scandal: it is Anna who falls in love with the charming Alexei Vronsky.
Tensions escalate as their relationship progresses, especially when Vronsky finds out that he has been deceived. This love affair is tumultuous: the troughs are jealous and destructive, while the peaks are intense and self-sacrificing.
This scandal is told alongside the story of Kitty and Levin. Personally, Levin was my favourite character, as I found his intellectual perspective on life’s meaning refreshing. Levin’s journey to find contentment is almost autobiographical, as Levin’s character and upbringing mirror that of Tolstoy himself.
As with all translated works, the version you read is important. I read the Penguin Classics version, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and would recommend this translation.
Tolstoy believed that literature was not simply for storytelling, but for a better understanding of the world we live in – a good translation will effectively convey this to the reader.
Anna Karenina is a book where new ideas and perspectives can be discovered during each reread. Upon first reading, I think the passion of living is a key theme: Tolstoy shows the reader how easy it is to miss the truth, even if it is right in front of us.
All characters’ contrasting viewpoints (even a hunting dog at one point!) teach the reader something different.
One can understand the joys of living for the moment, how that differs from a hedonistic lifestyle, the dangers of waiting for the future, or even the pertinence of being empathetic instead of passing judgment.
This transfixing classic has something for everyone: whether you are looking for a challenging read, or a culturally-rich drama with beautifully written (and often misunderstood) characters, Anna Karenina is an impressive choice.
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