Youth is the final book in Tolstoy’s first series. By the time Youth was published, Tolstoy’s identity as the author was known and he had also published his Sevastopol Stories, a collection of stories taken from his time in the military and it had been incredibly well received, so expectations were high for his fourth book which is probably why this one wasn’t received as well as the first two. It’s also a lot longer, just about ten pages shorter than Childhood & Boyhood put together. Probably though the main reason the book struggled to find audience is for the same reason that I ended up loving it which is that the main character is a complete ass, just a profoundly unlikable character. But then he’s fifteen going on sixteen and he always feels completely real. He’s arrogant and petulant and self-aggrandizing. The older Nicolay looking back on his young self is merciless in eviscerating himself for all these faults and the book is filled with moments of pure cringe. I found it to be really compelling, but you see why people would struggle to find a way into the character. But Tolstoy allows the character rare moments of surprising empathy; Nicolay and his father never quite get along after a certain point, but when his father chooses to remarry after the death of Nicolay’s mother, Nicolay has a surprising moment of insight and realizes that his father only wants to be happy again and the scene where the two share an emotional moment is one of the most moving in the book. But as well as being unlikable, Nicolay isn’t particularly good at anything. He’s constantly trying to prove that he’s more intelligent and cultured and articulate than the people he meets, but he’s chagrined and frustrated because every topic he brings up, they somehow know more than he does. This book is kind of the story of a journey we all take to some degree or another, the journey to realizing that we aren’t particularly exceptional. That’s all wrapped up in the climax of the book and I’m loathe to spoil it, but then again, if you glance over the Table of Contents, you’ll see it; the final chapter is titled simply “I Fail” and that basically boils the book down. I found this book to feel very modern, probably because of these elements. Nicolay is decidedly an anti-hero and the book is definitely a downbeat, dark book with a dark anti-climax. Tolstoy does allow a glimmer of hope to shine at the very end, but ironically he mentions that things kind of start to turn around for Nicolay in the next book . . . which he never wrote. Well, again, it’s kind of frustrating to have the ending of this book so explicitly reference the next book in the series since it kind of keeps the trilogy from having a good wrap-up as it is. Then again, maybe the theme of failure kind of finds its ultimate perfection in that ending, the promise of better things to come, a promise that never comes to fruition. 4 stars.
tl;dr – compelling character study feels very modern with its unlikable anti-hero & downbeat story; a work of genius as rewarding as challenging & serves as a surprising finale to the trilogy. 4 stars.