All Unhappy Women Are Alike: My Poorly-Timed Summer with Anna Karenina
It is a truth universally acknowledged that our mindset while we read a book shapes our experience of it.
So it seemed to me at the time that the train thing at the end was a total cop out. Maybe Tolstoy was as tired of writing about her as I was about reading. It could have also been the neck strain was too great as I held the heavy paperback above my face, lying flat-backed on the trampoline in my parents’ back yard in Illinois as Anna got run over over in Russia. Too many characters, too much drama, and too many horses.
Yet, all three of those things were some of my favorite 19th-century-novel tropes, third, fourth, and fifth only to rogues, whores, and wars. By all standards, Anna Karenina should be one of my favorite novels. It's not. Perhaps there was no room then, in the summer after my fiancé had called off our wedding, for some other woman with a cumbersome name’s problems.
I try to read an epic, usually a Russian one, every summer. I think it probably has something to do with the tireless and latent academic in me. I need, almost, to prove to myself that I can still marathon-read with the best of them. The last few summers, the heaviest items in my suitcase as I head out to the Hamptons with my family have been The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace. My aunt and uncle gave me The Count of Monte Cristo for my birthday this year, knowing it would show up at their pool come August. I typically think of serious books as the perfect beach reading.
I guess it makes sense that reading about Dostoyevsky's famous onion was easier when I was gainfully employed than Alexei Karenin's party-pooping was while I was living with my parents.
A part of the reason I loathe it is because the novel's two settings, the rural and the urban, were so totally different and fascinating in comparison to my own depressingly dull suburban environs. I was jealous of all those princesses in opera dresses, of St Petersburg society, even Levin out on the farm in the country near Moscow.
All this, as I had come back to Schaumburg, Illinois, famous for its shopping mall and huge IKEA, straight from a summer in dazzling Berlin and a year in the castle-encrusted Scottish seaside town of St Andrews, Scotland. You can see where the frustration came from. Anna getting screwed over by her Vronsky, me getting screwed over by mine. That was the summer I guess I learned that unhappy women are all alike; and that every happy woman is happy in her own way.
I think sometimes maybe I'll try it again. As Shakespeare said, a man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. But probably not. Why spoil such a meaningful if terrible memory of reading? There are so many books I'll forget before I forget that one.
So До свидания. We’ll always have Schaumburg, Anna.