Oh, where to begin… The novel basically covers the Napoleonic Wars, or at least Russia’s involvement, throughout the first decade or so of the 19th century. From what I could tell, and I was too lazy to look it up, Tolstoy has a very accurate accounting of the military movements and battles.
The actual story part follows two main families: the Bolkonskis and the Rostovs throughout this period. The characters’ stories are dispersed among chapters of history and philosophy. We see the characters grow, develop, intermingle, and finally all come together at the very end. I wish I could give you something more interesting, but it’s taken me months to read this, it was 6400 iPhone pages, and I am a bit foggy on some of the early details. Also, there are a LOT of characters.
If you’re really interested, it goes something like this:
Andrew Bolkonski has a wife he doesn’t like. He goes off to war and almost dies. The night he gets home, his wife gives birth to a son and dies in labor. He gets real depressed. To cure his funk he goes to Petersburg to “shake things up” in the government and meets Natasha Rostov. They fall in love and get engaged, but his dad disapproves. They go for a year-long engagement to pacify the dad. During that year, Natasha breaks up with him for a good-for-nothing, already-secretly-married, just-trying-to-get-in-her-pants, handsome guy. Andrew goes off to war again. He gets mortally wounded. As everyone flees Moscow ahead of Napoleon it turns out that Andrew is traveling with the Rostovs. Natasha and he make up and he dies.
Natasha’s story pretty much follows the above, but after Andrew dies she becomes besties with his sister Mary and falls in love with his best friend Pierre. They get married and have babies.
Mary, Andrew’s sister, basically gets shafted the whole novel as her dad’s punching bag until his eventual death. Nicholas, Natasha’s brother, ends up saving her from the encroaching French, and she falls nearly instantly in love with him. They eventually get married and have babies.
Nicholas starts out as a cocky, obnoxious kid. He grows up in the army. On his father’s death he assumes a gigantic debt and is reduced to poverty. He does love Mary, but marrying her has the bonus of making him rich again and letting him pay off his debts. He turns out to be a pretty good guy.
Pierre, Andrew’s best friend, is a total mess for 95% of the novel. He’s the illegitimate son of a very rich Count. When he ends up inheriting the money and title, he gets a bit overwhelmed. He marries a very stupid, slutty, and trashy woman of the very best breeding. They spend almost their whole marriage estranged. He spends most of his time bouncing around trying to find some definition of happiness. After the Natasha-Andrew break up, he realizes he’s in love with Natasha, but alas, Pierre is married! He stays in Moscow because he’s too depressed to leave. A half-baked scheme to assassinate Napoleon ends up with him defending a girl’s honor and getting arrested. He’s nearly executed by the French and ends up a prisoner of war. Being a prisoner changes his life for the better. He meets his spiritual guide while he’s a prisoner. After he’s freed he finds out his slutty wife killed herself, so he goes off and marries Natasha.
There are several more minor characters that I have completely ignored here, but you get the idea. And in case you’re wondering, Napoleon is eventually chased from Russia with his tail between his legs and practically no army to speak of.
- Why is this book so long? Granted, I read it for free on my iPhone. It was about 6400 pages. I’m sure the paper version is shorter. Regardless, it covers a good decade or more—year by year. I guarantee you that any modern editor would cut this to ribbons.
- Like so many books of this general time period, nothing happens in the lives of the actual characters for hundreds of pages at a time. Just as you might expect, the two big weddings that you wait for, literally, the whole novel, take place in the very last chapters. I would read and read, turning to Josh I’d say, “I think something might actually happen!” A few minutes later, “Nope. Nothing.” This isn’t to say that it isn’t satisfying when something does happen, but do we need so much of nothing? I guess it’s all character development, but maybe too much of a good thing there.
- After you finish the actual book you get not one but two epilogues. The first one is like the epilogue at the end of Harry Potter. You see how everything turned out pretty well for everyone. But once again, we have this whole epilogue and nothing happens. It ends really weirdly with Andrew’s orphaned son having a dream of revolutionary glory of some kind. Then epilogue two is nothing but Tolstoy explaining, or really concluding, his argument that historians are jack asses and that individual choice is actually an illusion, and we are all compelled by circumstance. It’s long and hard to follow.
- I’m not really sure what Tolstoy was driving at as the purpose of this monstrosity. There is a lot of war; a little bit of peace; and a lot of self-aggrandizement on Tolstoy’s part about how he’s basically smarter than everyone else—especially Napoleon. If you are a fan of the Napoleonic wars, it could be an interesting read. Otherwise, read the cliff notes.
We will now be hopping up the list to pick up Gone with the Wind. First though, I fully admit that I’ll be taking a short break and reading some light mystery with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, brought to me by one of my favorite fellowreaders. You can also expect another installment post on my Bible progress soon. It’s been a while in the works. Again, that whole moving thing.