Well. One week in to our read-it-before-Christmas challenge and (*spoiler alert*) we’re 90 pages in. It might not seem like a lot, but bearing in mind that’s roughly 10% of the book done and dusted, and that we’ve achieved it with little more than a ten page session on the way to work each morning, we’re feeling pretty pleased. Surprisingly, this challenge we’ve set doesn’t actually feel much like a challenge at all; at no point has reading this frankly ginormous book felt like a chore. Ok, so you can’t pack lightly for a weekend away while you’re reading it, but your journey will be all the more interesting.
What’s more, you probably can’t have failed to notice that the film adaptation is now playing at a cinema near you, and conversations about whether it measures up to this treasured novel have already begun. Does it have the right cast? Are the key aspects of the plot emphasised? Even if you’ve seen it and you already know exactly what happens, now’s the time to get reading so you can draw your own conclusions and join the debate. If you haven’t here’s a link to the trailer to whet your whistle.
So, what have we made of the first 90 pages? Well, let’s start at the very beginning with the novel’s opening line:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
To the unsuspecting reader, this ominous idea hits you square in the face. Which is precisely why it’s so brilliant. It cuts to the core of the novel’s critique (which is of the values of a very specific period in Russian society) and yet the making and breaking of families is universal enough to strike a chord with readers today. That’s probably why when you read it you can feel something happening; like you’re pulling the thread that causes everything to unravel. Virtual show of hands please: anyone else wish they’d written that?
You don’t even have time to digest this before Tolstoy picks you up and throws you into the confusion of unhappy family number one: the Oblonskys. Mother of five, Dascha Oblonsky, is distraught, having discovered her husband, Stepan, has been having an affair with their former governess. A fashionable man about town, and a liberal thinker who sees marriage as an institution in need of reform, Stepan can’t even deceive himself into feeling guilty about giving in to what he sees as an “infatuation” that is fundamentally at odds with his familial obligations:
“...there are two women: one insists only on her rights, and these rights are your love, which you cannot give her; and the other sacrifices everything for you and demands nothing. What are you to do? How to act? There’s a terrible drama here.”
Then there’s Levin, a great friend of Stepan’s despite their differences; Stepan a confident and good natured city-slicker, Levin an insecure country bumpkin and natural sceptic, in town with plans of proposing to Stepan’s sister-in-law Kitty. When we finally meet Kitty, it’s clear she has a great fondness for Levin, but that there are other forces at play: namely, social politics in the form of Kitty’s mother, who wants her to marry the eligible Vronsky - one of the gilded youth of Petersburg. To complicate matters, Moscow society is undergoing a shift:
“The French custom - for the parents to decide the children’s fate - was not accepted and was even condemned. The English custom - giving the girl complete freedom - was also not accepted and was impossible in Russian society.”
When Levin’s proposal does come, the pressure is too much for Kitty, and although she is overwhelmed with happiness, she refuses it, and with that we have the makings of unhappy family number two.
Ironically Vronsky, the only character so far who “had never known family life”, is at the centre of all this heartache, but we get the feeling that his relations with Kitty are little more than a young man naively going through the social motions, none of which matter any more when he meets Anna.
And it’s easy to see why. Anna appears bursting at the seams with passion, energy and feeling:
“It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile.”
The animation that so clearly longs to burst out of her is evident in the way Tolstoy writes about her so that with her arrival the book seems to come alive, and we, like Vronsky, fall quickly under her spell, even though there is also “something terrible and cruel in her enchantment.”
At the end of these first 90 pages, we leave her dancing the mazurkha with Vronsky, who has asked her right in front of Kitty, at the very ball that was supposed to cement their engagement…
Cue unhappy family number three: the Karenins. And this is just the beginning!
More from us next week!
Marketing Assistant, Penguin Press