In the early 1900's, Russia was always at war. There was the war with Japan. There was World War I. There was internal civil war with more factions than most people could follow. The people of Russia watched their whole lifestyle change. In less than twenty years the country went from a kingdom to a communist state.
Yurii Zhivago comes of age during this time in Russia. He is from the upper, cultured, class. He is able to complete his primary education and go on to university to become a doctor. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Tonia. They have a son, then he is drafted to be a medic near the front of World War I. He leaves his wife, son, and Moscow and heads west.
There he meets Lara Antipov, a nurse who is married to a soldier who disappears in World War I. She left teaching and became a nurse so she could look for her husband. By the end of the war he is presumed dead. Yurii Zhivago had seen her before, when she was younger, before her marriage. He had been in the background when her mother tried to commit suicide and later when she tries to shoot the man who corrupted her and her mother. Now he discovers she is a strong, capable person. Even so, he is glad to go home to his wife and son when the war is over.
But now civil war is occurring in Russia. It takes him many weeks to return home. There his wife, father-in-law, and son now live in part of the house where she had grown up. The rest is boarded up or let out to others to live. The monied upper class is now broke, often reviled. The Zhivagos live simply, trying to get by. Yurii is able to work at the hospital but even there he is mistrusted because of his past. Eventually the family decides to move east to Siberia where her family had had a large holding. Neither of them realize that is the town where Lara has returned to with her daughter.
Dr. Zhivago was an immediate best seller when it was released first in Italy, then later in English and in America. When it came out in 1956, then in the United States in 1958, the world was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Pasternak had to have the book smuggled out of his home country in order to get it published.
The novel is a saga, spanning Zhivago's life from when his mother died when he was ten until he dies of a heart attack. The book gives the reader a picture of a country under constant turmoil and changes. Politics are throughout the book, the background that shapes the characters.
The original English version is difficult for a modern English-speaking reader. I often would put the book down because I found it clumsy (the reading, not the book itself). Then there are these wonderful descriptive passages that describe the countryside. Pasternak's love for his country comes out in those passages. I found it hard to follow the political threads in the story, instead only understanding the larger picture.
I read this book with my library book club. One of our members is a Russian immigrant. The book was her nomination. She gave us an interesting talk about the history of Russia and Pasternak. It helped us better understand the novel and the country. A different member had a revised English version of the novel. She liked Dr. Zhivago better than some of us. When we compared some of the passages, we could see why. The revision flows better; it isn't as choppy.
Do I recommend this book? - yes with reservations. If you're an English reader, look for the revised version. Be prepared to create a score card with the characters. Because of the many different ways the Russian people address each other, it can get confusing figuring out who the characters are. The modern reader may have problems when Pasternak goes into the political side of the book, but keep reading. We Americans have romanticized Yurii Zhivago because of the marvelous movie that came out in the 1960's. The Yurii Zhivago in the book is a different man, swept along with the times and rarely a strong enough person to fight the tide.
These reviews are personal opinions only and in no way reflect other readers' opinions of the books discussed.
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