Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace or more commonly known as “the book most people have lied about reading” is the definition of epic.

This book is big and intimidating but it’s often the crown jewel for readers, why? Because it’s arguably the greatest novel ever written, so naturally if you’ve read it you must be part of the ‘in crowd’ or elite readers of the literary world.

So, why haven’t I read this book up until now? I mean, I’ve read massive books before, I mean the A Song of Ice and Fire books are just as long as this book so I’ve clearly read long books. Let’s not forget Les Miserables, another long tedious book that I’ve read. I’ve also read other works by Tolstoy (Anna Karenina) that are lengthy and wordy, so I am familiar with his writing style. So why avoid this book? Well I’ll be honest, even with all my reading and lengthy epics under my belt, this book scared me.

Tolstoy’s writing is complex and tedious as are parts of the story. A Russian writer in the Victorian era is anything but easy to read. I struggled with Anna Karenina at times and honestly felt like War and Peace was just too high above me. Like maybe it would be too had and what if I didn’t like it or understand anything? I would feel like an absolute disgrace to my literature degree!

So what changed? As lame as this sounds, I have to admit, the cover got me. Coralie Bickford-Smith (I reviewed one of her children’s books last year and I proudly display it in my nursery!) designed the new cover for Penguin Classics. It’s a stunning cover and an edition that I proudly have displayed on my bookshelf, so why not give it a read?

I went through several stages while reading this book, which I documented on my Goodreads status updates. I felt like I perpetually asked myself this question….’am I really only this far? I’ve read like 500 pages and haven’t even made a dent?!’. I gave myself almost seven weeks to read this book, but I probably would have given myself maybe a week or two longer just so I could enjoy it more. I found myself aggressively reading

At a glittering society party in St Petersburg in 1805, conversations are dominated by the prospect of war. Terror swiftly engulfs the country as Napoleon’s army marches on Russia, and the lives of three young people are changed forever.

The stories of quixotic Pierre, cynical Andrey and impetuous Natasha interweave with a huge cast, from aristocrats and peasants to soldiers and Napoleon himself.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy entwines grand themes – conflict and love, birth and death, free will and faith – with unforgettable scenes of nineteenth-century Russia, to create a magnificent epic of human life in all its imperfection and grandeur.

Anthony Briggs’s superb translation combines stirring, accessible prose with fidelity to Tolstoy’s original, while Orlando Figes’s afterword discusses the novel’s vast scope and depiction of Russian identity. This edition also contains appendices, notes, a list of prominent characters and maps (summary from Goodreads).

What is there to say about War and Peace that hasn’t already been said? I mean it’s a classic and a number of scholars and famous figures (Gandhi refers to this book a lot) have quoted, studied, and examined this book in excruciating detail over the years so what else could I possibly add? Well not a lot that’s for sure but here are some of my observations and thoughts.

The book doesn’t really have a hero or heroine, it’s more like a group of people within society which was new for me. In almost every book I’ve read, there is a clearly defined hero/heroine but not here. The idea I guess is to try and understand why people do things that they do. It was a little unsettling at first but I liked how this approach worked throughout the novel.

There was also a technical element to the novel which I found unexpected and a little disorientating for the first few hundred pages. The story moves from mind to mind, showing the reader the world and how it moves through it. The events are seen by one particular observer, and another person will take over in a few pages. Honestly it took me a while to get the hang of this approach. Between that and some of the language, the first four to five hundred pages were a challenge. But after that, I started to see what Tolsoty was trying to do and caught on to the technical elements. I can see how some of the technical parts might put some readers off but it was truly a unique and memorable approach and eventually you will love it so crack on.

Were there a lot of slower parts to the novel that I would loved to have skipped over? Yes. Were there parts of the novel that were overwhelming? Yes. But ultimately I found this novel a technical master piece well worth the long and aggressive reading I had to do to finish it! There were parts that I still felt were relevant to modern society and I loved the romance parts. Though this book isn’t a romance in the traditional sense, there were love parts that I cherished.

In the end I am glad I waded through this book and I can now proudly say I have read this behemoth. It is intimidating but once you get adapted to the writing style, you will see why this book is so often put on the top shelf!

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 

  • Hardcover, Penguin Clothbound Classic, 1440 pages
    Published January 14th 2016 by Penguin Classics (first published 1865)
    ISBN 0241265541 (ISBN13: 9780241265543)
  • Review copy provided by: Author/Publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 5 out of 5

Genre: Classics

Memorable lines/quotes:

Nothing is so necessary for a young man as the company of intelligent women.

The whole world is divided for me into two parts: one is she, and there is all happiness, hope, light; the other is where she is not, and there is dejection and darkness.

We are asleep until we fall in Love!

Because of the self-confidence with which he had spoken, no one could tell whether what he said was very clever or very stupid.

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