From The Washington Post:
Though Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma helped teach Tolstoy how to describe battle, most of War and Peace might be likened to a compact version of Balzac’s multi-volume Com¿die humaine. In these pages an old man’s heirs connive over his fortune. Parents strive to marry off their worthless children for money and status. Couples form and break up, young girls attend balls, their admirers quarrel and duel, fortunes are lost at cards, babies are born, families face social or financial ruin, and the most cherished dreams are dashed. The book never flinches from showing us deliberate cruelty, repeated heartbreak and survivor guilt.
While his villains never change, only worsen, Tolstoy’s heroes evolve, deepen, see more clearly into the nature of things. Society, the novelist believes, corrupts us because it is built on falsity and pretense, on role-playing and the acceptance of the unreal. It’s all opera. Only the very young and the very holy can ignore the pervasive artificiality. “As with all people, the moment she looked in the mirror, her face assumed a strained, unnatural, bad expression.” However, those chastened by suffering or allowed ecstatic moments of insight may sometimes escape the world’s meretricious allure.
As its title suggests, the novel examines two opposing realms, alternative paths through life. Tolstoy repeatedly contrasts war and peace, the artificial and the natural, erotic torment and family happiness, the city and the country, Moscow and St. Petersburg, Germanic military tactics and Slavic submission to the force of history, intellectual complexities and Christian simplicities, this world and the next.