This is one of those books that are the literary equivalent of going on a hike up a mountain. With 600 odd pages lying ahead and small type on a small side margined layout it is clear that this is going to be slow going.
As a result it seems sensible to split the book into the three parts that Tolstoy does with the first part introducing you to the world of two sisters living in Saint Petersburg in 1914.
Russia is a country full of opposing voices and characters like Rasputin running around soiling the reputation of the Tsar. Everyone has a view of what should be introduced to change the country and although hardly any agree on the way the future should look they all agree on the need for change.
Against the back drop of political meetings where the white middle and upper classes tentatively mix with the working class there are two sisters that are part of that world. Katrina and Dasha are moving with the times hosting and attending meetings where dangerous ideas are aired.
At one of the meetings the brooding but clearly influential poet is on the stage and he mentions to Dasha that he visited her sister’s home for one of the salons she held. Katrina fell under the poet’s spell and imperils her marriage by sleeping with the man who then threw her to one side having fulfilled his curiosity with her.
Dasha finds out about the affair and demands that her sister reveals it to her husband thereby ending the marriage. The sisters split apart with Dasha finishing her exams and heading back to her father’s flat and her sister going to Paris.
Then Arch Duke Ferdinand is shot and the pause before the start of the First World War starts. All Dasha can think about is the man she met in St Petersburg who also shared her trip to the Volga to see her father. She is in love but he seems so far away.
A great tale of love and loss with the different characters being built up to overlap at various stages later on.