It feels like my thoughts are too many and disparate to organize them into a neat review. So, a list:
- I was impressed by the degree to which this book, so often considered 'classic' or 'timeless,' was actually so firmly rooted in its era. Tolstoy is remarkably specific about the world in which his characters move: they attend musical performances that actually took place in Moscow and Petersburg in the 1870s, participate in the various fads that moved through society at that time, read books that had been recently published or recently translated into Russian, make offhand references to political and social preoccupations of the moment. Many of these details were not strictly necessary, yet they added such texture to the story.
- For the first half of the book, or maybe the first two-thirds, I loved its length. I was happy to just read and read about anything at all; not even the longest digressions from the two main plots bothered me. It was only as the book started to move toward the conclusion that I began to get a bit impatient. I don't know whether this has something to do with feeling like it had become clear how things were going to turn out and getting tired of waiting for them to turn out that way, or whether it was simply because I had already six hundred pages and was ready to go on to something else.
- Mostly, I enjoyed the book for Tolstoy's characterizations and the long unfurling of his plots, rather than for any particular vividness of the imagery or prose style. But there were three scenes that were absolute stylistic standouts: the moment in which Kitty and Levin communicate their feelings to each other by chalking mysterious coded phrases (intelligible to no one but each other) on a table; the chapter in which Kitty and Levin's wedding is narrated through the thoughts of the various attendees and onlookers; and, of course, the virtuoso depiction of Anna's state of mind, simultaneously frenzied, muddled, and marked by amazing clarity, leading up to her throwing herself under the train.
- What would it be like to read this book not knowing the outcome of Anna's story? Her demise has become so famous--one of those things that just sort of float in the culture, to be absorbed even by people who have no intention of ever reading the book--that I don't think it's possible for any contemporary reader to experience the book as a surprise. I wish I could have, though. God, imagine how powerful that final chapter of Part 7 might have been if I hadn't know what was coming!
- I found it hard to place the book on the spectrum of conservatism. There were these fantastic, Forster-esque moments that seemed to show how authenticity in feeling and action is the highest value of all, and to demonstrate how adherence to social order gets in the way of authenticity (for example, the moment when Anna is gravely ill and, in a rush of feeling, Alexei Alexandrovich experiences true forgiveness for her and absolves her of her infidelity, only later to reverse his position when he begins thinking about how it looks to others. That scene really did read like something out of Forster! Except for being five times longer than anything Forster would write, of course.) But at other moments the book seems to suggest that adherence to convention is necessary, that if only Anna and Vronsky had married their love would have remained secure and happy, for instance.
- I was surprised by how little the two main story lines had to do with each other. Kitty and Levin move through the same social milieu as Anna and Vronsky, they have connections in common, they know of each other and encounter each other once or twice, but I kept expecting an intertwining that never arrived. Is that just my modern sensibility, shaped by the fact that contemporary authors would be unlikely to fill their books with two stories that simply existed alongside each other in the way these two stories do? Perhaps.
- The story of Kitty and Levin, which seems in many ways to actually be the main story in the book (it is certainly given far more pages than the story of Anna and Vronsky), also shows Tolstoy disproving his own famous opening sentence: if happy families were truly all alike, why would he bother to so thoroughly imagine and narrate this one, in all its unique particulars?