I’m not sure when the desire to read a great Russian novel made its way onto my bucket list, but when I attempted Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and did not get it, and did not finish it, I knew a Russian novel was on the list as surely as traveling to Italy is.
When I completed Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and disliked it, I knew my desire was not just to read a Russian novel, but to enjoy one.
I am giddy that I just read the final words of Anna Karenina. In finishing it, and more importantly, in loving it, I know I have done and experienced something I wanted very much. In my e-reader, I highlighted almost 100 lines and passages. I enjoyed Anna Karenina so much that it has moved into my top five favorite novels of all time. It may have taken over the top spot. It has everything: charming and despicable characters, romance, betrayal, marriage, infidelity, Society and the peasantry, balls and teas and mowing with scythes, cities and agriculture, gorgeous scenes of golden light on fields of grain, a search for the meaning of life.
I was thinking the other day, before I picked this book up, about the rating system in Goodreads and how I use it. I was trying to figure out how I choose how many stars I give a book. I can love a cozy mystery, and read it in two days, and really really enjoy it, but it’s unlikely I’ll give it more than 3 stars. I couldn’t tease out why that was — if I loved it, why only 3 stars? — until I thought about what makes me give a book 4 or 5 stars.
When I give a book 4 or 5 stars, it’s because the book is layered. It has the story, but also meaning underlying the story. It has depth. If I read it again at a different point in my life, I might take a different meaning from it. Or if I read it only once, I might find meaning about multiple things: belief, people, nature, love. A 4 or 5 star book has altered me fundamentally in some way: has changed the way I see, has opened my eyes, is memorable, and has become part of the fabric of who I am. I might not know exactly what that change is immediately, but I know I have been affected in a way that will make itself known at some point.
And the difference between 4 and 5 stars? I don’t know. I just know when a book is 5 stars for me. And Anna Karenina is undoubtedly a 5 star book. When I read the final words of it, my mind bounced in a dozen different directions about what it all means, with the first and most important question being, But why is it called Anna Karenina? So I explored that question first, and came to a conclusion that I have no doubt is only a small part of the reason Tolstoy titled it Anna Karenina even though I felt the central character was not actually her.
I have so many ideas left to explore, like the double standards of what happens to a man’s reputation when he commits adultery (nothing, it is expected of him and the wife must just bear it) compared to what happens to a woman’s reputation when she does the same thing (she is ruined), how people’s motives affect their happiness or misery, who the likeable characters in the book are and why, because those same reasons carry out into the real world, the differences in conclusions from someone who arrives at them through intellect and someone who actually does the thing, and just a million ideas Tolstoy presents in this masterpiece.
I’m so happy to have read this book and loved it.