Book Review: War and Peace

I actually finished it. According to Goodreads, it took me two years to finish this monster of a novel. There is a discolored spot on the pages where my bookmark sat for months. During those months it had more use as a web cam prop than as an actual story… It is still odd to me to look at my pile of books and not see War and Peace. Instead, it has a proper place on my bookshelf where it can hold up it’s head next to the other books I have finished. I feel rather proud of myself, which is kind of funny, since I have completed more flashy accomplishments, yet this is the one I am proud of. (oh, the life of a bookworm…)

Anyway, on with the show!

Mostly, I was inspired to read this book because of Charlie Brown in the Peanuts movie. He reads the whole monster in a weekend! I know, I know, he is a cartoon character. But I thought, ‘well, if Charlie Brown can do it, I can too!’

Also, I had enjoyed Anna Karenina, also by Leo Tostoy. And if I am being perfectly honest, I thought it would sound cool to say that I had read War and Peace…

Little did I know that I would take maaany more weekends than Charlie Brown, and on top of that I would spend hours thinking and talking about this book. Mostly to my husband, who is a very patient soul, bless him.

One of the best ways I have found to describe War and Peace is that it is a Russian soap opera. Less coma’s, more deaths. There are people falling in love with each other, falling out of love, being tricked into marriage, having affairs, losing their inheritance, going off to war, and all the other dramas and heartbreaks that come with all of it. Of course, it is also a war novel about Russia’s war with Napoleon, so occasionally the novel takes a break from the upper class drama and take the reader to the front lines.

Personally, I liked the drama more than the war scenes. Partly because war tactics make my head spin, and partly because Tolstoy is a master with characters. The characters he introduces the reader to are so well drawn I can imagine meeting that person in real life. Or I can think of someone I know who is similar to that character. My guess is that Tolstoy was an astute observer of people. He drew on people he knew and met to create his characters. Characters such as a woman who says that right things at the right times, but people dislike her for the way she says things, not for what she says.

The main characters, or the ones who have the most ‘screen time’ are Natasha Rostova, Pierre Bezhukov, Andrew Bolkonski, Nicholas Rostov, and Mary Bolkonskaya. (Russian names are kinda complicated, Natasha and Nicholas are siblings but have different last names because one is male and the other is female, and the same with Mary and Andrew)

As well as creating such real characters, Tolstoy gave each one a character arc which blew me away. For example, Pierre at the beginning of the book drove me crazy. He made good choices when he was with good people, and bad choices when he was with bad people. He had no real backbone of his own. Even his own thoughts could be swayed by a persuasive speaker. But over the course of the book he learns to say no to people, especially those out to use him, he finds moral courage to do what is right, regardless of popular opinion. He becomes well loved not because he is especially brave or smart, but because he loves people, and genuinely wants to know people, which is felt and responded to by the people around him. By the end of the book, Pierre was one of my favorite characters.

There are similar characters arcs for the others as well, thought I think Pierre has the most extreme one. Natasha goes from flighty to serious, Mary goes from fearful to happy in the knowledge that she is loved, Andrew finally finds the meaning he is searching for, and Nicholas finds a purpose in life beyond his own selfish desires. The characters all grow and change throughout the book. The book spans eight years (well, fifteen if you count the epilogue), those years find the characters all growing up and changing the way they see the world. Not through the rosy eyes of the very young, but through eyes that have seen hardships, but still have hope.

What I find interesting is Tolstoy did not write the novel for the characters. Or for the plot. He did not set out to write a great novel, he set out to explain his view of history. The characters, plot, and setting all existed to illustrate his philosophy of history and how we should look at it. There are many, many times in the novel where Tolstoy takes a step back from his characters and explains the philosophy of his position.

In short, he believed in the inevitability of history. Wars, peace, kings, and revolutions all happen because they were supposed to happen. He rejected the idea that Napoleon was a genius who single-handedly conquered Europe. He said that it happened because it had to happen, Napoleon was used by history, not the other way around. In the novel Tolstoy gives the idea that history is a history of each individual life together with thousands of other individual lives. Taken altogether, you have the history of a culture. History is not the story of great kings and great wars, history is the story of each person living out their life the best they can, or the worst they can. It has more to do with each individual making a decision in that moment. Will I help my neighbor, or hinder them? Will I retreat from the battle, or stand and fight? Those decisions are the ones that make history.

This is not one of those books that I would say, ‘Everyone must read this!’ Because lets be honest, it is a thousand pages long. Who has time for that? (other than crazy bookworms that is…) To read it you must have first patience, a good memory for characters (find a copy that has a little genealogy in the front, I had one and it was soooo helpful), a slight interest in either war history or philosophy, and a love of classic books. If you have all of these things, go ahead and read it, I am sure you will enjoy it. If not, there are many, many other great Russian classics to read.

In the mean time, I am reading things other than epic Russian sagas and I don’t expect to pick another one up for a good long while. (Seriously though, why do they all have to be so long?)

Shaina Merrick