It takes an act of courage and determination to begin reading "War and Peace"-- not only because of its size but also because of the staggering reputation that precedes it. If you have the time to read a 1400+ page novel and the patience to sift through a large variety of Russian characters, then I promise you won't be disappointed.
"War and Peace" is many things to many people. It is a love story, a heroic military epic, a vast panorama of Nineteenth Century Russian society, and possibly the most incisive spiritual essay produced in the West to date. The core component of the story is the adventures of three characters, Count Pierre Bazukov, Prince Andrei Bolkansky, and Natasha Rostova. Prince Andrei is a cynic whose battlefield experience in the early Napoleonic campaigns has left him bereft of his idol, Napoleon. His dour outlook on life is changed when he meets Natasha at a ball and falls in love with her. Pierre is also smitten with Natasha, but his close friendship with Prince Andrei prevents him from revealing his feelings or acting on them. Prince Andrei and Natasha become engaged, but this turns to disaster when Natasha attempts to elope with a man who has beguiled her. Pierre intervenes to save Natasha's honor but the damage is done and the heart broken prince Andrei exiles himself to the countryside.
The lives of each character are irrevocably altered by Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Prince Andrei is mortally wounded at the Battle of Borodino and transferred to a field hospital outside of Moscow. Natasha and her mother arrive in the same location as refugees while Pierre remains in Moscow and attempts to assasinate Napoleon. While Prince Andrei lies in the hospital bed he sees his nemesis--the man who tried to steal Natasha from him--in the process of having his leg amputated. At that moment he feels immense compassion for the man and bears no more rancor towards him for destroying his relationship with Natasha. Prince Andrei's only wish is to see Natasha again so that he can forgive her. Later that night Natasha goes to the hospital in hopes of seeing Prince Andrei. When they meet again, Prince Andrei says, "I love you." This is probably the most powerful moment in the book since the love Prince Andrei expresses is not the adulating, possessive love a man feels for his bride. Prince Andrei loves her with a universal compassion and gentleness. He loves her as another human being, not as in instrument of his happiness. Prince Andrei has reached a point of spiritual evolution and in this sense, both Natasha and his rival are his teachers.
Back in Moscow, Pierre lines Napoleon's figure in his gun sights but is unable to shoot. He does not have it in him to alter the course of history. Instead, Pierre is captured and marched off with the French Army until he is liberated near the Russian border. He returns to Moscow and marries Natasha.
And this is just a summary of the core of the story. It omits many of the most interesting characters such as Prince Andrei's stern, ascetic father, or Natasha's temperamental brother, Nikolai. Entire sections of the novel are essays in themselves. For example at the beginning of the battle of Borodino, Tolstoi argues that the course of battle is not a matter of command or control but of fate.
Many readers have claimed that Tolstoi was a genius, but it would be more accurate to say that he was a genius on several levels. Tolstoi was a gifted writer, as well as a brilliant philosopher and social scientist. He was also a spiritual genius on par with Ghandi. Tolstoi's interpretation of love is a universal one that transcends any belief system. But this is hardly surprising from the man who said that if most Russians practiced true orthodoxy then the government would deem it a heresy.