Why read anything but Anna Karenina?
“Are you reading that again?”
“Hmm?” Sort of, not really, because every time I read it it seems new. But I’m not really listening because I’ve reached the scene where the newly-married Kitty and Levin rush to a backwater village to care for Levin’s dying brother. In this episode, Tolstoy reveals Kitty’s depths: Levin, who had believed she was accompanying him because of boredom, is stunned to realize that Kitty is not just a dollish darling, but an intelligent manager in the sickroom who is able to bring relief to the dying. She orders the dirty hotel room cleaned, brings fresh linens from her own room, calls the doctor, sprinkles insect powder, atomizes the room with vinegar and perfume, makes the patient comfortable, and orders Levin to turn his brother so he doesn’t get bedsores. Levin is frightened of death, but Kitty is far from nervous. Levin is astonished that Kitty, less intelligent than he (so he thinks), is useful in the sickroom. This new understanding heals their rocky relationship, because Levin now appreciates who Kitty really is.
In this brilliant novel, Tolstoy energetically compares marriages, romances, and affairs. All of his characters are related by blood or social connections, and all of the marriages undergo crises. In the opening pages, the Oblonskys are breaking up because Stiva has had an affair with the governess, and Dolly, Kitty’s sister, is heartbroken. Ironically, Anna Karenina, Stiva’s sister, whose visit to Moscow destroys her own marriage, heals the breach; but thereafter she breaks Kitty’s heart by unintentionally stealing the affections of Vronsky, the intelligent, sophisticated, cold, but passionate man, whom Kitty had hoped to marry.
Anna’s affair with Vronsky is at the center of the book, though her story is not necessarily central. Her relationship with Vronsky causes Kitty to have a breakdown; and Levin, who had hoped to marry Kitty, becomes nearly a recluse before they get back together. Karenin, in his dry way, is also devastated after Anna leaves him to live with Vronsky. And Anna’s relationship with Vronsky is doomed by society’s disapproval.
Does Tolstoy’s novel appeal more to women than to men? Certainly my household is polarized over Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, who, in my experience, rarely bothers to portray a woman, is unreadable. My husband won’t go near AK, though he adores Dostoevsky.
Everything pales beside Anna Karenina! On the bookshelf waiting for a chance: Jane Smiley’s new book and Connie Willis’s Dooms Day Book.
P.S. No one wants my free copy of War and Peace, so I am now charging $5 for it.