My first exposure to Tolstoy, and I loved it. He writes with a beautiful eye for scenic detail and social dynamics, and how inner thoughts and motives are outwardly expressed in the most subtle ways. But where Anna Karenina really shines is in character study. He explores Anna’s psyche most deeply, but she is not the only character of depth. Nobody in Anna Karenina is without fault in some way. But neither does even the worst character lack redeeming qualities or some sympathetic characteristic or circumstance. Just as in real life, every character has a different balance which changes over time.
The book begins with Anna’s sister distraught over her husband’s dalliance with a maid. Anna helps them to reconcile. Later, Anna, who is married, gradually falls for a man named Vronsky. He is a little more dashing and adventurous than her husband Karenin, and a bit of a womanizer; he had previously been flirting with Anna’s friend Kitty. They begin an affair and Anna eventually leaves her husband, but does not divorce him. Her husband could have also handled the matter better, nor was he a particularly caring husband. And while Anna admittedly isn’t much of mother to begin with, Karenin cuts her off from their son entirely. On the other hand, Karenin also later develops a close bond with Anna and Vronsky’s daughter.
As time goes on, the dashing Vronsky turns out be something of a drama queen, to the point of a failed suicide attempt after Karenin forgives him. As the years go by, Anna and Vronsky’s relationship loses its initial spark. Anna takes up a morphine habit, and is shunned from high society due to her relationship with Vronsky, even as Vronsky faces no such disapprobation. Anna’s husband continues to refuse her a divorce mostly out of spite, though he vacillates on the question throughout the novel. Anna eventually takes a cue from Vronsky’s earlier behavior, and the book ends with the family dealing with the aftermath, though the snubbed Kitty’s eventual marriage turns out to be a vision of pastoral Tolstoyan happiness, which spreads to most of the other characters in varying degrees.