Last weekend I started reading a very long book: Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina". This puppy clocks in at 930 pages. And it's a Russian novel. I worried it would take me about four years to read this one...slowly pondering deep, dark thoughts from the realm of mid-nineteenth century Mother Russia, and stopping every three pages or so to drink myself into a coma with deep gulps of vodka, in order to ward off the bitter cold of the Russian winter which would permeate the pages that rattled in my brain. But actually the book is coming along nicely, and no vodka has been necessary...I'm 300 pages in already, and I'm finding it quite enjoyable. The story does not move a long at a quick pace, but that's OK...the characters are all interesting, and Tolstoy spends the time with them to allow the reader to really get to know them. Indeed that seems to be what this book is about...the inner lives and loves of its main characters.
There are three couples that are the focus of this book, at least so far. One is Stiva Oblonsky and his wife Dolly. When the novel opens, Dolly has just learned of her husband's affair with their French governess, and she's inconsolable, while Stiva seems a little befuddled as to why all this should be a problem. Stiva calls in his sister, Anna Karenina, to come and talk some sense into his wife. Anna arrives, and indeed helps patch their marriage back together, at least for the time being. Meanwhile, Stiva's best friend from school, Konstantin Levin, has decided to propose to Kitty, Dolly's youngest sister. He does so, only to be rebuffed, as Kitty has fallen in love with a young officer named Vronsky. But unknown to Kitty, Vronsky has just met and completely fallen in love with Anna Karenina, even though Anna is married. The love is mutual, and eventually Anna and Vronsky begin to have an affair. Complications ensue. Lots of them.
As I said, the book really focuses on the characters. When Anna and Vronsky finally consummate their relationship, the narrator looks away, not describing the scene directly but merely alluding to it. And what characters they are. They are all unhappy, in some way or another. Anna and Vronsky are tortured by their illicit love. Levin despairs of Kitty's rejection, and has decided never to marry anyone. And Stiva and Dolly's marriage seems in constant danger, as Stiva proves to be serially unfaithful to his wife, whom he loves as the mother of his children but is no longer attracted to. The whole thing could be like a soap opera in a lesser writer's hands, but Tolstoy gives the characters such depth and humanity, that it never goes that way. Also he takes a good long time in getting to where he's going, which is quite enjoyable. The novel is long, and moves along slowly, but one never gets bored with the pacing or the intricate world that Tolstoy creates, which is a great achievement.