War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I think this is probably the book that I’ve felt the proudest about finishing this year. The recent BBC production had everyone talking about War and Peace, but I was determined not to watch the adaptation until I had read the book. Earlier in the year, Ruth at onthearmofthesofa gave me one of her copies and, with reviews scheduled on this blog for the whole of October, I decided that now would be the time. It took me nearly three months, with breaks to read lighter books in-between, but I was determined to finish before I went back to my parents’ house for Christmas. I’m so happy I finally managed to read this epic book.
War and Peace is a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, particularly focusing on the French invasion of Russia in 1812. There are two strands to the narrative: the personal impact of this period of war for a number of wealthy Russian families and the bigger story of Russian history in this time. These dual emphases of the narrative are seen most explicitly in the double epilogues, with one focusing on the lives of the characters after the invasion and the other detailing Tolstoy’s final thoughts about the way the Napoleonic Wars have been recorded and studied by historians.
The two strands of the narrative were actually, in my opinion, the weakness of the novel. The long digressions about the war were a big part of why War and Peace is such a struggle to read; it takes the reader out of the character development for long passages that do not further the plot. It is clear from the beginning of the novel that Tolstoy is partially writing this to challenge the common reading of this particular period of history. However, even though I enjoyed studying Tsarist Russia at A Level, I found it hard to maintain interest in the narrative through these passages.
It was the personal arcs of the characters that motivated me to keep going. At every digression, I found I was eager to get back to the characters’ stories to find out what was going to happen next. The characters are really the heart of the novel, with the emotional impact of the war relying on the reader’s engagement with the families and their relationships. All the characters are flawed and many of them make very poor decisions which end up hurting others and themselves, but each one feels realistic and engaging.
Given that the title is War and Peace, I hadn’t quite expected it to be so much about relationships. I had a little laugh to myself once or twice because it did seem at times to be a Victorian era reality TV show, with the characters swapping relationships on a regular basis. As a reader, I had to try hard not to get too invested in any relationship because it was unclear how many would last, and how many of the characters would survive.
Overall, this was a struggle to read at times, but there were also some very enjoyable and engaging moments that kept me reading. I have to say that I am not sure it is a book I would recommend to many people, probably just those who would like the challenge. Although I doubt that this is a novel I would reread in its entirety, I will definitely be going back and rereading some of my favourite parts and character moments again.