Monday, November 5, 2012

Anna Karenina Read-Along: Part One

Note: If you've already read Anna Karenina, please feel free to join in this Read-Along discussion. However, please refrain from discussing anything past Part One of the novel at this point.

I am reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy! I took the plunge into this 838 page Russian classic and now that I've gotten my feet wet, there's no turning back. I'm completely submerged in this epic saga. I had no idea this was such a fascinating and dramatic ... historical chick lit novel! Come along and read it with me--it's pretty exciting so far.

There are numerous translations of Anna Karenina available to readers, including a few free versions that you can download to your e-reading device from amazon, barnes and noble and ibookstore, although I do not know how reliable those translations are. I chose to read the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This translation was awarded the PEN/Book-Of-The-Month Club Translation Prize.

As well as being well recognized as an exceptional translated version of Tolstoy's original work, it has a few bonus features that I think are definitely noteworthy. For one, this version contains a list of the principal characters, including the numerous variations on every one's names, which is proving to be most helpful as Tolstoy uses them all at any given time. I admit I flip back to the character list quite frequently as I'm reading. This translation also includes a Notes section in the back of the book, upwards of 40-50 footnotes or explanations for various references throughout each chapter. Some of these notes are more helpful than others. More often than not, I feel as if I need notes for the notes, but I'm not worrying about understanding every little reference to outside literature or politics at this point. Someone more knowledgeable or passionate about history and the arts would likely benefit the most from these explanations. For the rest of us, not "getting" all of these details does not really detract from enjoying this piece of literature.

If your version of Anna Karenina does not have a character list or notes, there is a list of the primary characters and a summary for each of the eight parts of the novel on wikipedia. I suggest you read with absolute caution, however, because you may easily read major plot spoilers if you read the plot summaries! I accidentally read one last night on a book club page and am very disappointed to have read what I did. So please, be careful reading about the book around the internet.

Now let's discuss Part One of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

CAUTION: Since this is a Read-Along discussion post, you can expect spoilers from the designated section of the text. Read at your own risk!

Many book discussions of Anna Karenina begin with the very first line of the novel, so let's do the same.

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

1. Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

2. The story opens with the Oblonsky household in complete disarray as Dolly has discovered her husband, Prince Stepan "Stiva" Oblonsky had been having an affair with their young French governess. What are your first impressions of Stiva and Dolly? What do you think of the couple's quick reconciliation? Do you think Stiva got off the hook too easily?

3. Meanwhile, Oblonsky's childhood friend, the shy and awkward Konstantin Levin, "Kostya," arrives in Moscow from his country estate to propose to Dolly's youngest sister, Princess Katerina,"Kitty." What is your first impression of Levin and his friendship with Oblonsky?

4. Princess Katerina is being courted by both Levin and Count Vronsky. What do you think of Kitty's decisions regarding these two men?

5. What is your first impression of the title character, Anna Karenina? There is a strong magnetism between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky from the first moment they meet. What is your first impression of these two characters?

6. What is your overall impression of the novel so far?

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If you are reading Anna Karenina along with me or even if you've read the book already, I encourage you to share your responses to any or all of the discussion questions on your own blog or in the comments below. Feel free to discuss anything else about Part One that interests you.

Here are my responses to the discussion questions:

1. "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I disagree! How is happiness all the same for everyone, yet unhappiness so different? I think Tolstoy's statement is a huge generalization about both families and happiness. In my opinion, the only way "all happy families are alike" is in that they all have some degrees of unhappiness layered in there, too! Just as no one individual is perfect, neither are relationships, including the relationships among family members.

Of course, many families are happy, functional families full of love, companionship and support for one another, but everyone experiences varying degrees of bumps along the road of life--including our relationships with family members. That doesn't mean we want to abandon, betray or otherwise hurt our family members, but there are bound to be disagreements and hurdles along the way. However, how we deal with problems or instances of unhappiness in our families--with respect, patience and compromise, for example, is key to all of our overall happiness, I think. I'm curious to see how Tolstoy's characters deal with their familial problems and unhappiness. I imagine there will be varying degrees of success and disaster among the relationships.

2. I definitely think Dolly forgave Stiva all too quickly and easily for his affair. I don't trust Stiva when it comes to his promise of marriage to Dolly. He seems to believe he is entitled to mistresses and is way too non-chalant about his actions. I acknowledge that it was very common, if not expected, for married men to have mistresses, but it doesn't mean I have to accept it. Clearly not all of the wives found it acceptable either!

I would like to see both Dolly and Stiva make changes in their own behavior in order to improve the physical and emotional intimacy in their marriage, but I don't think anything is going to change. Dolly won't take any initiative to do so--partly because she doesn't know what or how to do that, and Stiva won't either simply because he doesn't think he has to! The only thing he did wrong was get caught!

3. I really like Levin so far. I feel a little sorry for him because he doesn't quite belong among the aristocracy of his friends in Moscow. He's a bit socially awkward, but he's intelligent and not ashamed of his ideals. I admire him for wanting to live life the way he wants--on his estate in the country wanting a home and family.

As far as the friendship between Levin and Stiva goes, I think their friendship is so long lasting merely because they were close family friends since childhood. If they didn't have that solid past of having grown up together, I don't think they'd be friends as adults since they seem too different. Stiva is more shallow and self-absorbed, a man who strives to keep up with the aristocrats of Moscow society, while Levin seeks the happiness that a wife and family can bring his life in the country and his ideals are his own, not whatever is simply the popular consensus at the moment.

4. Oh, Kitty. I like her! Like Levin, she seems the most genuine of characters so far. As it is, she is very young and therefore she relies on the guidance of her mother regarding important decisions about her social life--such as who to marry. She is more likely to make decisions based on what is expected of her rather than what her heart tells her. I think she would be very compatible with Levin and I was disappointed for both of them when she refused his marriage proposal, but I could see why everyone would think Vronsky would be a better match for her. It doesn't seem these characters necessarily marry for love, which I suppose was very common in this time period. When Kitty was cast aside by Vronsky for Anna Karenina, a married woman no less, I felt even more pity for Kitty. I hope she finds happiness in the future.

5. My first impression of Anna Karenina is that she is beautiful and alluring to just about everyone she meets--men and women. She comes across as complex and enigmatic, but I also find her rather sad and think maybe she is lonely or depressed. Her marriage lacks emotional intimacy and obviously the attraction she feels for Vronsky and he for her spells nothing but trouble for everyone. I don't trust him at all. Everything he has done so far is for purely selfish reasons.

6. I really enjoyed reading Part One and cannot wait to read more. I have to admit I didn't realize how juicy this story is! A lot of drama among family, friends and lovers. Who knew?

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It's not too late to join the Read-Along that Fay from Blog A Book, Etc. and I are hosting on our respective blogs and with an Anna Karenina Read-Along Group on goodreads. I assure you that Part One is a quick 100+ pages that you can read in just a day or two and hopefully you'll be as hooked as I am. We will be reading Part Two this week and discussing it next weekend. We'd love to have you join us!


  1. I really liked the stuff about the main group of people. I was less interested in the part with Levin and his brother-I think it's because the book is called AK and I want to focus on her. I definitely find her very fascinating.

    I also think Stiva got off the hook too easily but I assume that the point is to juxtapose the leniency toward a cheating husband against the severe treatment of a cheating wife.

    I've already read about 20 pages of Part II and am liking it more-love all this stuff about the upper echelons of Russian society!

  2. :)
    I'm not much for epic sagas but Anna Karenina is a pretty good one, I have to agree.
    The thing with Russian aristocrats and their mistresses is that they were seen as a symbol of status, so it was largely expected for noble men to have many and kind of against the norm not to have them (it usually implied they couldn't afford them). So I think Stiva and Dolly are kind of product of their upbringings.

    The way your describe Kitty and Levin is nice. And Count V is a sketchy character, I always feel that about him: sketchy.

  3. That is a great post Christine but i only read 2/3 as didn't want to spoil parts of the book I am yet to read! I really need to catch up thanks for the great character list it does help! I have to keep flicking to the back of the book for the little sidenotes but am going to use the character list as a bookmark!

    I am working tomorrow but will be blogging when i get home as have the next day off so hopefully can catch up on my discussion!!


  4. Sorry I'm so late responding to all of your comments on this post!

    Bookworm1858, I think you're right about the author's point to juxtapose the leniency toward a cheating husband vs. that of a cheating wife. I wonder, though, if that was Tolstoy's intention or if it's just the way it is. Did men really think it was sexist or unfair?

    Alex, Ugh. I think you're right about it being not only acceptable but desirable for men to have mistresses to show their wealth or social station. So awful.. so glad that's not the case in our society today.

    Yes! Count Vronsky definitely comes across as sketchy to me, too! Self-centered and sketchy!

    Fay, Hope you've been enjoying the book so far!

  5. I'm waaaay behind on this, but I loved both your questions and your thoughtful answers. I think you definitely have a better sense of the characters (especially Anna) than I do so far. But I absolutely agree that Vronsky is selfish - that's the perfect word for him.

  6. Hi Clio!
    I'm behind now, too! I'm so mad that I let myself slip.. especially now that the movie is FINALLY playing in my local movie theater! Now I'm debating whether to see the movie now or wait until I'm finished. I have two other books I want to read between now and Dec. 31, but I hope I can finish Anna Karenina soon!

    I'm starting to think Anna is a bit selfish, too, although I have a bit more pity for her because her husband is not attentive to her AT ALL.


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