Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy, Davina Porter "Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be."

Anna Karenina is the wife of Alexei Karenin (depending on the translation and how familiar you are with Russian naming conventions, be prepared for this and lots of other potentially confusing name swapping), a top-ranked bureaucrat. But their marriage is one of societal obligations more than love. When Anna goes to Moscow to help mend the family trouble her brother, Stepan Arkadyevich, caused by cheating on his wife, "Dolly", she meets an officer, Alexei Vronsky, with whom she begins an affair. Meanwhile, Dolly's youngest sister, "Kitty", is in love with Konstantin Levin but declines an offer of marriage in hopes of winning Vronsky's attention. Thus begins a truly epic saga, filled with love, loss, and lots of philosophical and political discussions.

Almost two full months of listening to this audiobook (narrated by the supreme, Davina Porter, who could make reading the the nutrition facts from a box of prunes sound amazing), and I have finally finished this book! I feel like I deserve a prize for this epic achievement! Firstly, because I'd never have thought I'd ever have the courage to read one of Tolstoy's hefty tomes, and secondly because I thought I'd never FINISH this hefty tome!


Now that I've actually finished this book, I have to say, I'm rather surprised. First off, Tolstoy has a reputation for being, shall we say, intimidating. I mean, isn't "War and Peace" used as the punchline of a joke about how stuffy a person is or how hard a class is? I was prepared for the most challenging read (listen) of my life; imagine how surprised I was at how readable this book turned out to be. The language was easy to understand; heck, the writing itself almost sounded like something written in the last 50 years, instead of 100+ years ago. So I think props should be given to the following: Tolstoy, for writing a book that can seem so timeless (and in many ways, it is), to the translator, for translating a book so well, and Davina Porter, for being the best damn narrator in the universe.

At this point, I almost feel like I'm reviewing two books. Because while one portion was really, really heart-breakingly good, the other part was so mind-numbingly boring that I had to nail the earbuds into my ears just to keep listening.

The story that focuses on Anna Karenina, her affair, and her interactions with her husband and her lover were superb. Anna Karenina was such a brilliant character. In the beginning, you think she is going to be the ultimate Mary Sue - she is intelligent, witty, charming, and gorgeous. Everyone loves her; she seems to do no wrong. But then she falls for Vronsky and her world crumbles. Her husband refuses a divorce and withholds their son - even going so far as to tell the boy his mother is dead! He also blames her for everything and says he has done no wrong - and while yes, Anna did commit adultery, I don't think she would have been driven to do that if Alexei had been the slightest bit loving and caring to her. Society refuses to acknowledge her; she cannot receive callers or come to call to other people, without destroying their social standing. She is a "fallen woman", who desperately clings to her only salvation, Vronsky. And when life is at its most tumultuous, no wonder she starts to fret that Vronsky may be tired of her and moving on to greener pastures.

Anna's story is nicely contrasted with that of her brother, Stepan. Stepan is an adulterer, though not in the same way as Anna. He fancies a girl - be it his children's governess or someone else - fools around a bit, and then wanders on to the next fancy. To him, his wife is getting "old" and not looking her best - not to mention, he really didn't love her anyway. (And to answer the obvious question: Stepan was probably my least favorite character, and I thought he ought to be made a eunuch for what he put his wife through.) I couldn't help but feel for Dolly, this longsuffering woman who puts up with Stepan's crap, gets pregnant with his children, and is basically stuck in her position, because if she ever fled to another man's arms, she'd be as ostracized as her sister-in-law, Anna.

As fascinating and gut-wrenching as Anna's story was, Levin's story was the height of boredom to me. Now, there were parts that I enjoyed - Levin and Kitty meeting after a long absence and there were a few really charming scenes between the two of them where they seemed genuinely concerned for the other's welfare. But other than a few scenes, most of Levin's sections were dry, dull, boring, and pointless. I tried really hard to be open-minded, but I don't care for endless prattle about the peasants' proper place in farm life, Levin mowing wheat, the proper way to farm, political and philosophical conversations, etc. They really came out of nowhere and had no bearing on the plot - honestly, it felt like Tolstoy had a few things he wanted to say about hot topics of his time and tossed them into the novel.

The characters that appeared primarily in Levin's section were pretty dull as well - Levin was our Gary Stu. His opinions were always right; he could fret over his wife, but if his wife fretted over him, she was being silly (in fact, in Levin's mind, Kitty was nearly always silly); and Levin was constantly jealous of nearly any man that looked at Kitty (Trust issues much?). Kitty was equally bland; a silly girl that had to be carried along in life because she was too air-headed to figure things out - though she did get moderately better at the end. And the rest of the characters left no marked impression on me - I couldn't remember one if you pressed me.

While all of the female characters made at least a little impression on me (yes, even Kitty), none of the male characters appealed to me at all. All of them felt arrogant, self-righteous, demanding a-holes. From emotionless Alexei (who was probably the least annoying - when he wasn't try to heap all the blame onto Anna, that is) to show-off Vronsky (who can horse-ride and paint AND run a farm - good grief!), from sleaze Stepan to jealous Levin, the men of "Anna Karenina" were so unlikable that I just couldn't root for any of them. I guess that makes them all the more realistic - if that was what Tolstoy was going for, he did a great job.

If I were just to rate the sections with Anna herself, this book would have been an easy 5 star. The writing is really good; the characters are pretty well-rounded (no one is painted as 100% evil or good). It's just, I couldn't stand Levin and his asides into How the World Should Be. That said, I still think this book is a must-read; do not be intimidated by the "Tolstoy" name. Crack it open (or better yet - pick up the unabridged audiobook narrated by Davina Porter!) and see if it is up your alley.