One way of describing War and Peace is that its scope is as expansive and broad as the Russian countryside. Critics of the book pick up on this theme and agree with Henry James when he says that Russian novels are, “... large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary,..." In other words, they have no obvious beginning, middle and end.
I agree that such a description can be applied to War and Peace, but once finished and I had a chance to reflect on the reading experience I ended up viewing it differently. I perceived it to be the story of two couples (Pierre & Natasha, Nicholas & Maria), their growing up, making mistakes, regretting those mistakes, reconciling with that regret, and their experience of maturation into becoming two rather ordinary couples by the conclusion of the book. They may have ended up as ordinary couples (in the First Epilogue), but their life journeys have led them on a path that encountered many other people, passed through several wars, and survived the intrigues of peace time.
One has to marvel at Tolstoy’s ability to manage 160 different named characters in this long novel and at the same time give each character his or her own unique personality. The reader ends up knowing many of these characters better than members of their own family in real life. Tolstoy also seems to have a knack for knowing when it’s appropriate to describe the minutest detail, and when to skip over irrelevant details. Tolstoy is obviously a master story teller.
Of course, along the way Tolstoy beats into the reader’s head his philosophy of history which can be summed up as, “There are no great men.” In other words, history is the sum total of the actions of ordinary people, and leaders simply go along for the ride.
The story covers a time period of 1805 to 1813, and the First Epilogue carries on to approximately 1820. Through the magic of books, a reader of War and Peace can feel the exhaustion of living those fifteen years within the weeks or months required to read the book. It may be a long book, but after all, it’s shorter than living fifteen years.
In my opinion, Tolstoy went off the deep end with the Second Epilogue. In it he pontificates on the subject of history and the nature of political power in a needlessly verbose manner. This epilogue has no business being in a novel. I didn't mind his editorializing throughout the body of the novel at dispersed locations, several paragraphs (or pages) at a time. But the 2nd Epilogue is a complete waste of the reader's time. I was going to give the book 5 stars, but have changed it to 4 stars after encountering the Second Epiloque.
I was a member of a book discussion group that read this book over a summer and met to discuss the book at three meetings over a three month period. This is the best possible way to read (or listen to the audio of) any book. A group that is willing to gather and discuss a big book like this tends to be a self selecting collection of interesting people filled with an abundance of ideas. I feel fortunate to have been part of it.