War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
This book is an education in itself, and sadly, I felt I didn’t know enough to truly appreciate it. I had a similar reaction to gigantic classic novels Anna Karenina and Les Miserables. My lack of background knowledge on the Napoleonic wars and Russian society in the early 1800s made it hard for me to follow a lot of the events, but I did my best and looked up a few things when I felt unbearably clueless. Every edition of this book should have maps and diagrams to help readers understand the battles and the movements of the various armies; the descriptions are very meticulous and hard to picture without a visual aid. Tolstoy interweaves history and philosophy lessons with a story about the love affairs of the young people of three noble families, concluding with an extended meditation on the discipline of history and free will. I wondered whether Tolstoy’s presentation of Napoleon and the Russian leaders is considered a fair one nowadays. Again, I was left with the urge to learn more about this exciting period in history.
The female characters were all problematic for me in various ways. It seemed like they were all defined by their possession or lack of the three things that give a woman value as a wife: beauty, virtue, and wealth. Pierre’s first wife Helene is probably the worst; she has beauty and wealth, but no virtue. Natasha has only beauty. I found Natasha annoying for the entire first half of the book, if not the entire book. Her preening and singing were repeatedly described as enchanting, but just seemed obnoxious to me. She becomes more virtuous after repenting a stupid affair and caring for her dying ex-lover. And then after her marriage, she immediately turns into a nagging matron. Sonya has beauty and virtue, but no wealth. Her entire existence seemed to be an apology for her poverty and the fact that her relatives had to take her in. She does nothing but help and support others, and her reward for it is living with the man she loves and his wife. Princess Mary has virtue and wealth, but no beauty. She’s so virtuous and dutiful, she allows her father to abuse her. In the end, she practically has to beg Nicolas to marry her so that she can solve all of his family’s money problems.