A Romance Reader’s Recap of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace
A | BN | K | AB
I gave myself a challenge to read War and Peace in 2020. You can find a variety of challenges online regarding this book, but mine was to read one chapter a day, which would bring me all the way through the book in a year.

Reader, I read it, and let me tell you, War and Peace is a big old romance novel and I am here to tell you ALL ABOUT IT. Yes, Bitches, we are going to recap 1110 pages of torrid romance, right here, right now, LET’S DO THIS.

MEGA-SPOILERS FOR WAR AND PEACE, THE WHOLE BOOK, TO FOLLOW. TW/CW FOR DISCUSSION OF CHARACTER SUICIDE ATTEMPTS.

I HAVE TEA TO SPILL AND I AIM TO SPILL IT.

kitty in tea cup asks what's the tea?

YOU CAN’T SAY YOU WEREN’T WARNED.

War and Peace is famous for being difficult to read, but it’s actually just long. The biggest challenges of reading War and Peace are remembering who everyone is (especially since everyone is referred to by multiple names, something I’m sure I’ll mess up at least once in this recap) and not falling asleep during the sections wherein Tolstoy, the author, kicks the narrative to the curb and takes a “let’s be philosophical about history” break.

Should you require outside validation to skip those bits, I am here for you, because they are repetitive and dull and not as groundbreaking now as they once were. All you need to know is that Tolstoy was opposed to the “great man” theory of history, which postulated that things happen because a few great people make them happen. “The combination of causes of phenomenon is beyond the grasp of the human intellect,” Tolstoy says, over and over again.

Jake the Dog feels this pain

Jake from Adventure Time tells Fin I was reading the same paragraph over and over for like eleven minutes

Philosophy aside, War and Peace is chock full of amazing outfits, romance (of the heartwarming kind, the tragic kind, and the torrid kind), psychological growth and insight, breathtaking action sequences, and wicked humor.

For example:

But despite the fact that the doctors treated him, bled him, and gave him medicines to drink — he recovered.

pirate at drum kit gives a rimshot

Because I’m following multiple romance arcs, I’ll be jumping around a lot. Rest assured, there are plenty of War and Peace timelines online that will indicate what’s happening when in a more straightforward way.

PIERRE and HÉLÈNE

Ahem, let us begin the tea spillage. Pierre is a sweet doofus. He is short and wears glasses and is what they used to call “portly,” although casting companies always skip over that part in film adaptations. As a result, he does not fit in with the military bros who are all over this book. He makes a million mistakes, but my goodness, the man has a heart of gold. He becomes very rich, very quickly, and very unexpectedly. Pierre is also an introvert. This is best expressed late in the book, when:

A dozen different people were waiting in the drawing room to see Pierre on business. Pierre dressed in haste, and instead of going down to see them he ran down the back staircase and out by the back entry to the gates.

From that moment until the occupation of Moscow was over no one of Bezuhov’s [Pierre’s] household saw him again, nor could they discover his whereabouts, in spite of every effort to track him down.

Later, Pierre!

Ron from Parks and Rec makes his escape

Hélène Kuragin is smart, amoral, and gorgeous. She marries Pierre the minute he gets rich. Since Hélène is smoking hot and Pierre not so much, Pierre is happy but confused about Hélène’s interest. Here is Helene courting the nerdy Pierre, who doesn’t stand a chance:

He got up, wishing to go around, but the aunt handed him the snuffbox right over Hélène, behind her back. Hélène moved forward so as to make room and, smiling, glanced around. As always at soirees, she was wearing a gown in the fashion of the time, quite open in front and back. Her bust, which had always looked like marble to Pierre, was now such a short distance from him that he could involuntarily make out with his nearsighted eyes the living loveliness of her shoulders and neck, and so close to his lips that he had only to lean forward a little to touch her. He sensed the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she breathed. He saw not her marble beauty, which made one with her gown, he saw and sensed all the loveliness of her body, which was merely covered by clothes. And once he had seen it, he could not see otherwise, as we cannot return to a once-exposed deception.

Simmer down, Pierre

SouthPark with smitten hearts

The honeymoon ends when Pierre realizes that Hélène is sleeping with pretty much all of Russia, including her own brother (Anatole, don’t forget about him, he turns up later). I don’t support slut shaming, but she is also dishonest, mercenary, and manipulative, so I feel completely free to love to hate her, while also envying her clothing.

NATASHA AND ANDREY

Meanwhile, Natasha Rostova, a young friend of Pierre’s, is an adorable teenager who has a crush on Prince Boris. I have never found anyone as forgettable as I find Prince Boris, who keeps turning up in the book but never does much. Don’t worry about him, he ends up just fine after becoming one of the many, many people to have an affair with Hélène.

Anyway, many years pass (this book covers fifteen years altogether). Boris leaves to join the military and Natasha falls madly in love with Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, a widower. Andrey is supposed to be a very romantic tragic hero, but since I never got over his treatment of his first wife, I never warmed up to him. Sorry, Andrey.

Andrey gets engaged but Andrey’s father disapproves because Andrey’s father is the Enemy of Joy. He (the Enemy of Joy) can’t stand the thought of his adult children leaving him, so he tries to keep them dependent on him and he is horribly emotionally abusive to Marya, his long-suffering daughter. Anyway, The Enemy of Joy orders that Andrey and Natasha wait for a year before announcing an engagement. Andrey zips off to tour Europe while Natasha is miserable at home.

At some point in all of this, Pierre is all, “Oh shit, I’ve always loved Natasha, but I’m married to a lying manipulating gaslight to hates me, so…”

Oh, Pierre.

Linus is sad

NATASHA AND ANDREY AND ANATOLE AND PIERRE

Andrey takes off for Europe to do manly things, leaving naive, lonely Natasha at the mercy of society, which is represented in this book by the Kuragin siblings. Remember Hélène and Anatole? Hélène is bored. Anatole is bored. Natasha is hot and also completely inexperienced. The next thing you know, they all meet for the first time at the Opera in Moscow. Hélène, I’ll have you know, is dressed with “very naked arms and shoulders.”

This is what Natasha is thinking during her first conversation with Anatole, which happens in public while Hélène is watching the Opera “in her nakedness.”

In five minutes she felt — she did not know how — that she had come fearfully close to this man. When she turned away, she felt that he might take her from behind by her bare arm and kiss her on the neck.

Oh, my, Natasha!

Blanche from Golden Girls sprays herself with water

With Hélène’s encouragement, Anatole convinces Natasha that he is in love with her and wants to elope with her and he almost does it, even though he is secretly married to a peasant woman in Poland. When Anatole’s friends ask him why he’s doing this, he basically says:

raccoon says, "Because I'm evil"

Natasha’s cousin, Sonya, spills the beans, hoping to save Natasha from what any fool can see will be utter ruin, and the family chases him away. Pierre confronts Anatole and tells him to fuck right off. Andrey finds out about the whole thing and breaks up with Natasha. Natasha attempts suicide, and then Pierre says this to a despairing Natasha,

But one thing I beg of you, look on me as your friend; and if you want some help, advice, or simply want to open your heart to someone — not now, but when things are clearer in your heart — think of me.’ He took her hand and kissed it. ‘I shall be happy, if I am able…’ Pierre was confused.

‘Don’t speak to me like that; I’m not worth it!’ cried Natasha…

‘Hush, hush your whole life lies before you,’ he said to her.

‘Before me! No! All is over for me,’ she said, with shame and humiliation.

‘All over?’ he repeated. ‘If I were not myself, but the handsomest, cleverest, best man in the world, and if I were free I would be on my knees this minute to beg for your hand and your love.”

MISCELLANEOUS DRAMA

We are now at the end of Part Two. We have an entire other part to go plus two epilogues. Here’s a bunch of miscellaneous drama from Parts One and Two:

  • Sonya (Natasha’s cousin who saved her from Anatole) is in love with Natasha’s brother, Nikolay, who falls out of love with her but feels obligated towards her.
  • Pierre separated from Hélène, reunited with Hélène, and joined the Freemasons, as one does, in his continual effort to do good things and find himself.
  • Dolohov, a bully who tricked Nikolay out of a vast sum of money, slept with Hélène, taunted Pierre about it, and was subsequently, but not fatally, shot by Pierre in a duel, before joining the army so he could bully people as part of his job.

Meanwhile, the governess for Andrey’s son (he’s the product of Andrey’s first marriage) is trying to live the dream by having an affair with Andrey and Marya’s dad, the aforementioned Enemy of Joy. BTW, much earlier in the book, Anatole unsuccessfully courted Marya while also having an affair with this same governess. This is the kind of incident that seemed important at the time, but I forgot all about it until I thought “I better look up a plot summary just in case I mixed anything up,” and remembered “Oh yeah, that whole thing happened.”

It’s that kind of book.

squid dude says it's all so complicated with the flowers and the romance and the lies upon lies

NIKOLAY AND MARYA AND SONYA

All this time, the ‘War’ part of the book has been happening and things don’t look great for Russia. Nikolay saves Marya from a peasant revolt, so naturally they fall in love. The Enemy of Joy dies (hooray!), leaving Marya rich. Nikolay needs money, but he’s also practically engaged to Sonya, so there’s a love triangle that consists of Nikolay pouting until Sonya cuts him loose so he can marry Marya guilt free.

At the very end of the book, Sonya, who has no other family and never marries, has to move in with them and raise their kids, which surely is a fate worse than death, which the lovely Sonya does not deserve. This kind of situation is why Mrs. Bennet was so uptight about getting her daughters married off in Pride and Prejudice, you guys. Sonya is described as “a sterile flower” so, up yours, Tolstoy.

Seriously, Leo, up yours

Veronica Mars gives Tolstoy the middle finger

PIERRE

Backing up to follow the other characters: a lot of violent things happen (see: War). The French invade Moscow. Pierre tries to assassinate Napoleon, but he gets distracted and saves a kid from a fire instead (MY HEART) and gets arrested by the French. He becomes a prisoner of the French and makes friends with a peasant who has a dog. I’m sure it’s fine.

Yes, Pierre plays with the dog and carries it around. Did you doubt this for an instant? Pierre achieves inner peace and wisdom, but all readers want to know is: what happened to the dog?

Doggy? Doggy!

[caption id="attachment_96746" align="aligncenter" width="296"]happy dog waves from limo See? The dog is fine![/caption]

ANATOLE AND ANDREY AND NATASHA

I know you will be thrilled, THRILLED I say, to learn that Anatole fought in battle and had to have his leg cut off without anesthesia, after which he suffered a lingering, horrible death from infection.

Andrey joined the army after breaking up with Natasha. He is wounded in one battle and thought to be dead, wakes up long enough to meet Napoleon, recovers and fights in another battle, gets wounded again, is reunited with Natasha, and dies despite her efforts to nurse him back to health while fleeing Moscow with her family in a wagon (OK, several wagons and a carriage). This is very sad and readers who managed to forgive him for his treatment of his first wife will cry buckets of tears. Natasha is devastated.

Winter comes and the French finally remember why you should never fight a land war in Asia.

Ooops

Vizzini from Princess Bride laughs himself to death

HÉLÈNE AND PIERRE AND TWO UNNAMED GUYS

Meanwhile, remember Hélène? At some point, she decided that maybe she could get her marriage annulled and remarry and have a lover on the side, but since she currently has two lovers she can’t decide which one to marry, assuming, as she does, that Pierre will grant her a divorce or an annulment.

In a spectacularly catty revelation, Tolstoy tells us that Countess Hélène is unwell:

Everybody was very well aware that the charming countess’s illness was due to inconveniences arising from marrying two husbands at once, and that the Italian doctor’s treatment consisted in the removal of such inconvenience.

Poor Hélène hires an Italian (incoming racism alert!) who is a charlatan (there it is!) who is trying to induce an abortion, but she gets impatient and takes a whole bunch of doses at once, and this is a fate I would not have wished on the delightfully well-dressed and gleefully amoral Hélène:

Moreover, on the evening of that day everything seemed to conspire to throw the Petersburg world into agitation and uneasiness: a terrible piece of news came to add to their alarms. Countess Elena Bezuhov died quite suddenly of the terrible illness which had been so amusing to talk about.

Egads.

David from Schitt's Creek says OUCH.

I truly feel that Hélène was pure evil and I also truly feel that I could read about her all day. I want 1110 pages of Hélène manipulating and lying her way out of trouble, fucking her brother, and entertaining herself by helping said brother seduce virgins who are engaged to other people. Hélène, I’ll miss you.

PIERRE AND NATASHA

And now, the pay off. After years of character development and separation and illness and deaths of significant others and the invasion of a foreign army and considerable miscellaneous personal trauma, Pierre and Natasha reunite:

“But no, it cannot be,” he thought. “That stern, thin pale face that looks so much older? It cannot be she. It is only a reminder of it.”

But at that moment Princess Marya said, “Natasha!”

And the face with the intent eyes-painfully, with effort, like a rusty door opening — smiled, and through that open door there floated to Pierre a sudden, overwhelming rush of long-forgotten bliss, of which, especially now, he had no thought. It breathed upon him, overwhelmed him, and swallowed him up entirely. When she smiled, there could be no doubt. It was Natasha, and he loved her.

Reader, I may have swooned a little. This is, in my opinion, one of the loveliest passages I’ve ever read. Will it surprise you know that Pierre and Natasha get married and have several adorable children? I’m thinking not.

War and Peace basically ends on a cliffhanger and there are a lot of dead bodies between the beginning and the end, but at least one couple gets a happy ending. This is assuming you believe that Natasha’s obsession with family life to the exclusion of all else counts as happy rather than super sexist, a question that has fueled a million college essays.

The topic of Tolstoy and women is one that must wait for another post. For now, I will end with one last quote from War and Peace: “We are asleep until we fall in love.”

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  1. 1
    Rebecca says:
    +19

    Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is a good musical adaptation of the Anatole/Natasha attempted enlopement storyline. It also includes the duel, as a way of explaining why Pierre’s and Helene’s marriage is so bad. I feel like Dave Malloy also knew that War and Peace is essentially a romance novel as well.

  2. 2
    LML says:
    +12

    Oh, Carrie. Thank you for this recap. I wondered yesterday as I read “Whatcha Reading?” if you had abandoned this reading project. I’ve thought several times through the year that your idea of a chapter a day was very clever. Alas, since it is January 10th, I’ll have to wait until 2022 to start.

  3. 3
    kkw says:
    +16

    I love prince andrei with every fiber of my being and it’s fine that you don’t appreciate him and he would have been miserable with natasha anyway because he was meant for me.
    Also I feel it’s important to note that the feature that makes the fascinating sexy amoral Hélène so utterly irresistible is her mustache.
    Also also, if you ever need some catharsis the War and Peace opera with Hvorotovsky made me sob, in public, for five straight hours. Possibly ymmv.

  4. 4
    CarrieS says:
    +7

    @LML, you can start any day of the year! I started in March (I finished early because on some days I read a lot of chapters and I skimmed the last epilogue).

    @KKW – HOW DID I MISS THIS DETAIL??? (mustache)

  5. 5
    Jeanne says:
    +7

    I read W&P too this year and fully approve of this recap. And it is absolutely a romance novel. Emily VanDerWerff wrote a nice article over on Vox, which is also worth reading. Also, I loved the BBC miniseries, which, due to the format, does without much of the philosophising.

    Overall, I really loved the book. I came close to putting it away quite often (it is very long and sometimes meandering, after all), but I ultimately found it a very rewarding experience. I had so many thoughts about the characters and suspect they will stay with me for a long time.

  6. 6
    Karen Lauterwasser says:
    +9

    I read War and Peace in junior high, when I went through a “find a book longer than the last one” phase (The Count of Monte Cristo, Man in the Iron Mask, Anna Karenina, etc. ). I can’t say I recall much of it; your method was definitely the better plan of attack.

  7. 7
    Barb in Maryland says:
    +10

    Carrie–marvelous review!!
    I’ve read it twice and was looking for a prod to read it again (this time in the Pevear translation). Thank you
    The 1972 BBC series had Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. He was fabulous!

  8. 8
    Sophydc says:
    +6

    Carrie, might I ask which translation you read? I’m intrigued and would like to get a copy, but there are so many different versions that I’m hesitant to just pick one.

  9. 9
    CarrieS says:
    +10

    @Sophydc I had the Barnes and Noble Classics paperback translated by Constance Garnett. TBH I picked it purely because I’m collecting the series. Here’s an article re translations:

    https://www.tolstoytherapy.com/best-translation-war-and-peace/

  10. 10
    Soohydc says:
    +5

    @CarrieS, thanks so much for the reply. I will definitely take the advice of the article. Read the beginning of each version mentioned. Cheers.

  11. 11
    Sandra says:
    +6

    I have a ton of B&N Classics, though not W&P. I do have Anna Karenina. Back in the early days of ebooks, B&N had regular themed selections of their Classics for free (Austin, fairy tales, poetry). I downloaded them all. Have I read any of them? Nope. (Except for Austin, but then I already had her in paper.)

  12. 12
    Arijo says:
    +4

    Great duet with this Saturday’s kickass women in history. Thanks for those posts!

  13. 13
    Juhi says:
    +3

    Ok, this just makes me think that War & Peace is wonderfully bonkers! I don’t think I’m ever going to read it because I had to look up who’s who even with this synopsis! (had to do ctrl+f to see who Nikolay was!)

  14. 14
    Madeline says:
    +7

    Does anyone else think Hélène sounds a lot like Jane Austen’s Lady Susan?

  15. 15
    chacha1 says:
    +5

    @ Barb oh wow I can (based on the above recap) totally imagine a young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre.

    Have not read W&P. Prepared to assert that I will not read W&P, unless there is a philosophy-free abridged edition. So many books, so little time. 🙂

  16. 16
    Kareni says:
    +4

    Carrie, thanks so much for your entertaining review. Now I don’t need to worry about ever reading the book!

  17. 17
    Lisa F says:
    +7

    Man, I had to read this one back when I was in school. This is so much fun, Carrie, and it captures the romantic underpinnings of the novel very well.

  18. 18
    BellaInAus says:
    +6

    There are some books that I can only get through is if I watch the television adaption. War & Peace is one of them.

    But the BBC adaptation with Cousin Rose from Downton Abbey and the cute Vicar guy from Cambridge was very, very pretty.

  19. 19
    Margaret says:
    +5

    Congratulations, Carrie! (and Jeanne!)

  20. 20
    Susan/DC says:
    +10

    The cute vicar guy from Cambridge (actually, “Grantchester”) is James Norton, and I’m prepared to watch him in almost anything.

    I think that one of the reasons Andrei died is so that Nikolay could marry Marya. If Natasha had married Andrei they would have become not merely a married couple but one entity (i.e., flesh of one flesh) so it would have been incestuous for her brother to marry his sister, as they would have been seen as one family. A little ironic considering Helene and Anatole, but there you have it.

  21. 21
    GD Ks says:
    +5

    I read W&P so long ago I don’t remember much of it–I was very young! Try Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa–I foolishly put it on my MA reading list but only made it about three-quarters through. Just couldn’t take it and wanted Clarissa to hurry up and die so I could be done. One of my professors told me that three-quarters was more than she could ever stand to read. At least I don’t remember that strong of a reaction against W&P!

  22. 22
    chacha1 says:
    +3

    OMG I hated ‘Clarissa.’ Hated ‘Pamela.’ Kind of had to read them because my thesis was about Frances Burney and I needed the context but UGH. So, so much ugh.

  23. 23
    Lil says:
    +1

    War and Peace was my present to myself after I graduated from high school and didn’t have any “required reading” looming over me. I loved it! So much that i read it in less than a week, having free time.
    I got a terrible sunburn reading Clarissa. It was required reading in my college course. I was not looking forward to it, and it was May and sunny, so I went out on the dorm roof to get some sun while I read. I got so engrossed in the story that I neglected to come in and was in considerable pain. But I still have fond memories of the book.

  24. 24
    Karin says:
    +1

    Thank you so much, Carrie. This was a wonderful review. For those who want something shorter with romance and the Napoleonic Wars in Russia and an HEA, I highly recommend “Flight From the Eagle” by Dinah Dean. It’s out of print so you’ll have to find a used paperback, but it is 100% worth seeking out.

  25. 25
    Janine says:
    0

    I also read W&P this year with the “chapter a day” plan and was surprised by how much I loved it (outside of the “philosophy of history” segments, those were boring). I had read several other classics of Russian literature for various classes and hadn’t liked any of them, so I’m not sure why I gave W&P a chance, but I’m glad I did. I had no idea that so much of the plot revolved around the various dramas of a bunch of teenagers and young adults. I would really like to reread it in a class setting–I could tell there was a lot of context Tolstoy assumed his readers had that was going right over my head.

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