‘Doctor Zhivago is the epic novel of Russia in the throes of revolution and one of the greatest love stories ever told. Yuri Zhivago, physician and poet, wrestles with the new order and confronts the changes cruel experience has made in him and the anguish of being torn between the love of two women.’
I first became acquainted with the story of ‘Dr Zhivago’ last year when I watched the 2002 mini series starring Hans Matheson, Keira Knightley and the brilliant Sam Neill. I don’t remember much of the show, apart from how utterly stunning some of the scenery was and that throughout watching the show I couldn’t shake the feeling of intense desire that someone, anyone, would just give poor Yuri a break.
That feeling doesn’t leave you when you embark upon the novel, in fact it follows you a lot more closely. Every twist and turn of the plot seems to completely change the lives of Yuri and Lara for better or worse. This makes for great drama but also becomes quite trying for the reader after a while, as the emotions you experience begin to feel like a rollercoaster. One chapter Yuri and Lara are at their worst, then Yuri’s brother appears to wave his magic wand and solve all their problems with ease. Then, just as you think perhaps the main characters might be allowed to be happy, the revolution takes another turn for the worst or Yuri is kidnapped by partisans and the cycle of depressingly unhappy to deliriously happy begins again. It can be very exhausting to keep up with but it does keep you on your toes as a reader.
The main thing I enjoyed about reading this novel was the insight it allowed me into the Russian Revolution. Before this, my knowledge of the events were incredibly basic- and by that I mean I knew vaguely what had happened by as I’d never studied the events or read up on them even remotely I really didn’t have any reliable prior knowledge of the ins and out of the history of it. So, for me, reading the description of the political climate that framed this novel was incredibly interesting and was arguably one of the main reasons the story held my attention.
My main issue with the plot was that ‘Dr Zhivago’ is hailed as “one of the greatest love stories ever told” on the front cover but I didn’t really feel that when reading it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been conditioned to think of love stories as either a familial love between parent and child or romantic love between two people who end up together, or at least are clearly earmarked as meant to be with each other. But you don’t get that in this novel. Lara first has a relationship with Komarovsky which doesn’t last as he lusts after her but she feels very little for him, then she marries Pasha who she loves throughout the novel but is abandoned by after a few years together when he joins the war effort, and then she loves Yuri who she is with intermittently but does not in fact end up with. Yuri, meanwhile, marries and has children with Tonya but when she is exiled to Paris with their children he chooses to stay with first Lara and then Marina and have children with both (although he dies before he finds out about his daughter with Lara). So for me, when I hear this is a great love story I really don’t know who it’s referring to. Yes, Lara and Yuri are the two main characters and they did love each other for a time but Yuri allows Komarovsky to take Lara away even though he knows the man’s history and doesn’t in fact have a favourable opinion of him and neither of them manage to find each other again after that.
Basically, I did love the book and really enjoy reading it but I think, personally, the history interested me far more than the somewhat patchy love affairs of the main characters.