Happy Saturday, my friends!
As you probably recall from this post, I recently finished the 1000 page masterpiece, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Check out my earlier posts about War and Peace as well.
Guys, I still kind of can’t believe it! This is, by far, the longest book I have ever read and it certainly lived up to the intensity, hype, and grandeur that I have given it all these years. I think I’m still rather intimidated by it. And I have been thinking about how to synthesize a 1000 page novel into about a 1000 word review. So this is a bit different than my usual review. But I’m pleased with how it turned out. I want this to be helpful for people that want to tackle this novel and need a little encouraging to feel up to the task.
If I can do it, you can read it too!
Why I think War and Peace is so hard:
Frankly, this book is long. There are a lot of pages to cover, and it’s easy to get discouraged. But I think the key to overcoming that is to try to read a little bit every day. The nice thing about the format is the longer books are broken up into fairly short chapters. Sometimes, I just read a few of those chapters a day.
There are so many characters! It’s fairly easy to keep the main families straight. (Once I figured out that some have multiple names that they respond to). But then there are the Russian and French armies and the different ranks and how they are all connected. That gets hard to keep together. I found that a character guide was helpful (there’s a lot online that you can print) and not getting to bogged down by keeping them straight. Honestly, there are different tiers of importance with the characters. And sometimes not knowing how they all fit together is okay.
It’s not all action-packed plot. My favorite books focus on the interactions between the aristocratic families in Russia. Some books are all about military minutia and how the armies are moving across the continents. Others are focused on Tolstoy’s beliefs about history, war, patriotism, or money. That makes the novel hard to stay invested in because the scenes and focuses of the books change. You might have to wait for 100+ pages to hear what happened to Prince Andrew or how Pierre survived captivity or whether Natasha and Princess Mary are actually friends. It’s hard to remember where certain story lines left off. But I think, overall, these different ideas add to the mastery of the work.
This novel covers a lot of time in a lot of detail. We start with the initial military campaign against Napoleon in 1803 and end in the late 1810s after he fails to take over all of Russia. And we get all the details about those 15+ years. Tolstoy is giving us a complete history of sorts from this time period. And it is slow and long. That makes this book hard. While most novels give us the highlights, the adventures, the excitement, this book gives us everything–the interactions, the battles, the preparation, the explanations about military, money, history, and more. And Tolstoy is truly a master to effectively put it all together this way.
Is this a novel?
I think it’s important to note that this book does more than the average novel. It covers more time, more philosophy and commentary, more characters, more pages. In fact, Tolstoy himself did not call it a novel. It’s important to realize that War and Peace is not trying to be a traditional novel; in fact, it’s trying to be different. I think that knowledge can help readers better appreciate what Tolstoy is doing. And it helps to not judge it like it was a traditional novel.
My Favorite Elements in War and Peace:
By far, my favorite characters in the books were the Rostov family and (by extension) Pierre and the Bolkonsky family. I enjoyed reading about the changes and challenges in their lives and personalities. It’s not often that a book gives us the detailed lives of so many characters through so many years of their lives. I could have read more about them and less about the war.
The chapters that I enjoyed the most were also about these families. It was in the sections about the Russian aristocracy that I found myself engulfed in the story–Natasha and Prince Andrew’s engagement, Pierre’s captivity in Moscow, the first epilogue of the book and more. I must admit it wasn’t too often when I was so into the story that I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. But every so often, I found myself really enjoying the narrative.
The deeper elements:
By the end of the book, I came to really appreciate the deeper elements in the novel. When I say “deeper,” I am talking about the themes and the philosophical commentary. Tolstoy is a master at incorporating both. At first, I thought it was a bit distracting from the narrative and the characters. But as the novel continued, I found myself fascinated by his commentary–sometimes even more so than the narrative.
This book is full of beautifully developed themes. A few of my favorites with questions…
- History: This seems to be the main theme of the entire work. In fact, Tolstoy devotes the majority of his final epilogue to the subject. I found How is history written? How can we find truth in history written by imperfect people?
- Religion: How do God and religion affect people? How can God change perspective, heal wounds, eliminate grief, and change lives in different people? Does God control history? Why or why not?
- War: What is the purpose of war? How do the decisions of generals truly affect the course of war? How does God play a role in the outcomes of wars and in history?
- Redemption: How can one find redemption and forgiveness?
- Honor: Why is honor so important? How does it affect our actions in war and in life?
The final epilogue is a masterpiece. I wasn’t sure how Tolstoy could effectively end such a long book. But he does it. It’s beautiful, compelling, and poignant.
Advice for Future Readers of War and Peace:
I thought it might be helpful to share a few tips that helped me successfully finish this 1000 page masterpiece. It’s worth the effort!
- Read a little bit everyday. Even if it’s just a few chapters, you’ll feel like you are accomplishing something.
- Try reading War and Peace on kindle or listening to the audiobook. The kindle version saved me. Reading the tiny print in my copy was often discouraging and hard. I preferred the kindle.
- Digest every book separately. I wrote shorter reviews for most of the books within the novel which helped me keep characters and plot lines straight.
- Just keep swimming! Keep reading and push through the hard parts. It is worth finishing!
I don’t feel like I can really rate this book on a 5 star scale. As it is in a genre and class all by itself, I think I will simply say that this book is truly a masterpiece. It is worth the effort to read and the accomplishment of finishing it is amazing!
This novel is another one finished for my list with The Classics Club. Check out my full list here. For more info on the club, click here.