Anna Karenina (published in the mid 1870s) is a bit like a 130-year-old, still-in-use country house — the foundation is still solid and it still can be a wonderful escape. It's only the decorations and adornments that may seem a little outdated. But even so, they do little to distract you from the bigger picture: That it's a beautiful historical construction, whose purpose is just as relevant today.
If Tolstoy had been a 21st century American, he may well have been a staff writer for a sitcom like Friends or Seinfeld — pointing out the foibles and absurdity of everyday life, drawing out relationships between characters with a keen eye, especially as they rise and fall on the happiness continuum, all the while dealing with some rather big-picture issues; the meaning of life, i.e.
In fact, to me, the most interesting aspect of an incredibly interesting, fun novel is how these characters — especially Anna and Levin, the two protagonists, each struggle with metaphysical questions in different ways and how their choices, the results of those choices, and the search for truth (Levin decides life has no meaning but then sees Kitty, Anna feels her freedom stifled and wants to make Vronsky pay or he'll "regret it") combine to send them on roller coaster rides of happiness. One finds his answer (after a few precarious moments) and continues his ride, the other ends up underneath the train.
The supporting characters translate to today just as well, too — Stepan Arkadyich, Anna's brother, absolutely slayed me. He's that super laid-back, easy-going friend everyone has who's always trying to bring everyone together, who solves huge problems with his connections rather than with hard work, and who justifies anything he may have done to piss someone off by tossing off a "Sorry for partying, dude."
And, of course, everyone knows a Vronsky — he's the popular, athletic guy who is the first one you call when you have an extra ticket. But he's also got a bit of a dark side (to borrow from a State Farm commercial). He's got a different lady for each day of the week, but isn't willing to commit to any of them — mostly because they exasperate him. He doesn't truly understand them, especially when they begin to go crazy with jealousy.
Only the long discussions of politics and peasants, of foreign wars and farming methods — not critical to the plot's foundation — make it clear to the reader how old this novel really is. Still, this is a must-read for any literature fan. Contrary to somewhat popular belief, this is not a hard novel to read. (I mean, Oprah made it her summer pick a few years ago!) It's a straightforward story, and if you use an edition that lists the principal characters with all their names and nicknames, you've negotiated the only really major impediment to understanding the novel. I'm very happy I finally read it, but sad I put it off for so long.
Now, if somebody would just make a movie...
(I'm kidding, of course. Anna Karenina is one of most filmed novels of all time — at least 10 different versions exist. A British version from 1948 stars Vivien Leigh, who also had played Scarlett O'Hara nine years earlier in Gone With The Wind. A post for another time, perhaps, but Margaret Mitchell was clearly influenced by Tolstoy in some of her own themes and characters in Gone With The Wind. But if you've read this far, I'm probably not telling you anything you don't know.)