book review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

417rmz3iq5l-_sx324_bo1204203200_WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy
originally published in 1868
translated by Anthony Briggs

I don’t even know where to begin with reviewing a book like War and Peace. But in an effort to condense my experience with it into a single sentence, here we go: I didn’t like it. I wanted to like it, I tried to like it, I was in fact sure I was going to like it, but even giving this novel the unenthusiastic three stars would be disingenuous.

If you made a Venn diagram of things that interest me in a novel and things that interest Leo Tolstoy, there would be nothing the middle. On my side at the top of the list you’ve got: characters. On Tolstoy’s side you’ve got: Russian history.

Maybe it was naive for me to expect less war in a book where War comprises half the title, but my expectations going into this were all wrong. I’d been familiar with the musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which was adapted from the 70 page segment of War and Peace which focuses on the affair between Natasha and Anatole Kuragin. Already having some affection for these characters, I dove into War and Peace with a list of questions that weren’t apparent to me from the musical alone: What exactly was Helene’s role in the affair? What were the circumstances of Anatole’s first marriage? Did Anatole ever love Natasha, or was he always out to use her? Unfortunately, such details turned out to be beside the point entirely.

I’ve never quite read a novel like this, where the plight of the characters always seemed secondary. Here is a list of things that got more narrative attention than the main characters: Napoleon, military strategy, Tolstoy’s personal philosophical musings, heavy criticism of the Great Man Theory… and if all that interests you, you will love War and Peace. But as someone who isn’t so interested in war, who needs something more quotidienne to drive a story than Big Philosophical Ideas, this ended up being a long slog for me.

I don’t mean to imply that there’s no character development at all in this 1,358 page behemoth. Pierre and Andrey notably struggle with finding their place in the world, each adopting different philosophies at different points in their lives, constantly striving to be good men. But their personal journeys weren’t quite enough to really pull me into this story, especially when I didn’t find either of them particularly interesting to begin with. Characters who I found much more intriguing – Helene, Anatole, Natasha, Sonya – were only ever paper thin.

I think War and Peace also suffered for the unintentional contrast with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables that I couldn’t quite get out of my head. (This was the initial reason I was sure I was going to love War and Peace – my only other experience with a monster-length nineteenth century novel resulted in me finding my favorite book of all time.) I can’t help but to see these two novels and their musical counterparts as inversions of one another. Les Mis condenses the contents of the novel into a two and a half hour long musical, cutting it down to the absolute essential characters and events. And while it does a good job, reading the book only enriches the experience and gives you a fuller picture. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 extrapolates from a very small section of War and Peace – it takes characters who weren’t very well developed to begin with, and gives them new depth and new life.

If I ever read this again (which I don’t intend to, but, never say never!) it will have to be with the intention of furthering my understanding of the Napoleonic Wars. This, in my opinion, is the height of what War and Peace has to offer. It’s a seminal text where military history is concerned. But I wanted more of a story.

I’m glad I can say I’ve read War and Peace… but the relief I felt at turning the final page isn’t like anything one should feel while reading a much-loved novel.

19 thoughts on “book review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

  1. Great review, Rachel! I’m close to finishing Anna Karenina, also by Leo Tolstoy, and while I think it’s more enjoyable than War and Peace. There are some passages that reminded me of what you mentioned in your review. There are just some discussions that take up lots of pages about agriculture and Russian politics and they are very annoying since I know very little of the background of those issues and have little interest in doing research. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it very much, hopefully your next read will be much better! xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I haven’t read Anna Karenina but I already had a feeling that it had to be more interesting than War and Peace… but it’s too bad that he goes on page-long digressions even there! I do think I want to tackle that one day, but I need some time away from Tolstoy for the time being.

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      • I quite enjoy it right now, I just have a hard time finishing it, I feel like I’m afraid the ending might disappoint me. I’ve also been disappointed once by someone who likes to throw movie references all over. I can totally understand that!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations on finishing this! I went through a phase of reading lots of Russian literature and I think I have read all of Tolstoy’s fiction – except for this. I got like 3/4 of the way through and then the only character I was interested in (I don’t remember the details) died – so I put the book down and never picked it up again. I really enjoyed Anna Karenina though – I think it is the only one of Tolstoy’s art that doesn’t feel like it’s just a vehicle to get his political and philosophical points across, if that makes sense.

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    • Thank you!!! I am pretty relieved, haha. Wow, 3/4 is pretty far, it was definitely about then that I was really tempted to throw in the towel. Tbh my biggest motivation in pushing through was just being able to say that I’ve read War and Peace, it was not for the story itself that I stuck it out. I do intend to check out Anna Karenina at some point (not immediately, I need a break from Tolstoy for the time being), it sounds a lot more to my liking. And that makes perfect sense, a vehicle for Tolstoy’s political and philosophical musings is exactly how I would describe War and Peace. I actually haven’t read much Russian lit at all, is there anything else you’d recommend?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I absolutely adore “The Master and Margarita” by Bulgatov and am planning on reading more of his books soon. I also thought “Empire V” by Victor Pelevin was pretty great – but partner thought it sucked though. I haven’t read any Dostoyevksi yet but want to get to that soonish as well; “Doctor Zhivago” went over my head when I read it but it was very readable nontheless.

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      • Ahhh The Master and Margarita has been on my TBR for ages, I really really need to get around to that soon. I haven’t even heard of Empire V but I’ll look into it! And Doctor Zhivago is my mom’s all time favorite movie hahaha, so I’m familiar with that but haven’t read the book yet.

        Liked by 1 person

    • My rating started at a solid 4 stars as I did genuinely enjoy the beginning, and then just gradually declined throughout the whole thing. By the time I finished Volume 4 I was still up in the air between 2 and 3 stars, but the epilogue solidified it as 2. Ugh. I’ll have to go back and see what you wrote about it. And YES I completely agree, #justiceforSonya


  3. Fantastic review. You make me want to read the book again! I own it in Spanish, which is my major, and I really should reread it in that language. I’ve read it three times and adore it, but guess what – I have skipped/skimmed the war sections every single time. This could be the year I read War, also.

    Cheers to your writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! If I ever choose to read it again (not entirely out of the question!) I will absolutely skip the war sections. They do their job in providing historical context, but I was sadly just bored to tears by them. Good luck if you choose to read it in Spanish – that’ll be a fun challenge!

      Liked by 1 person

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