Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I haven't read a lot of Tolstoy's work; War and Peace when I was in high school, but that was about it until now. Both of these novels are defined, for me, by a large number of characters, expansive social commentary and deeply felt relationships.
I'm finding it difficult to review this book. Tolstoy once again displays his great mind, wrapping issues in characters and imbuing characters with passions. I recall the complexity of the relationships; that several characters were quite silly in their focus on, for example, the “simple lives” of the peasantry; marveling at the initial love between Anna and Vronsky and then becoming progressively horrified at how their long-term affair destroys Anna. She starts out as this beautiful woman, a free spirit who's never had the chance to be free, the kind of person everyone in the room gravitates towards. She ends... well, the final scenes from her perspective are claustrophobic in their insanity. It's an excellent piece of writing and deeply painful to read.
Some readers and critics have called Anna the most realized female character in a novel. I'm not sure I'd go that far (although perhaps she was, up to that point in novel-writing), but she's certainly three-dimensional and has stuck in my mind.
Many other characters stuck in my mind as well, my favorite being Levin, with his pained ambivalence towards religion and his obsessively deep thinking.
As a 21st century reader, it's intriguing to watch Tolstoy write as a student of human nature. For example, there's an elderly man who has never, ever fallen in love. There's also a woman who “falls in love with men and women” (I believe I am quoting, there), becoming their protector and helpmeet even when she's not their lover. Both are known around high society for these things, but like the rest of the characters, the author never shows them as anything but human beings living out their own lives and loves along with the Annas and Levins and Vronskys of Russia.
I'm very glad to have read this book; I enjoyed it and it made me think.