War and Peace has the handicap of being on almost every short list of "greatest novels of all time," and on many such lists in fact stands at the top. That, plus the size of the book and its huge cast of characters, makes it a little intimidating for those who are unused to Russian names and their numerous affectionate variations. Yet once one starts reading, the mantle of greatness falls away as a barrier with the discovery that this is a book that's very hard to put it down. Tolstoy had an amazing gift to bring each person who figures in his epic fully to life, the women no less than the men. He records not only what is said but, in many cases, what was thought but not openly expressed. Tolstoy has a surgeon's eye for what is going on beneath the surface.
As the title suggests, this is in part a book about war (the heroism, the horror, the chaos, the tragedy), but even more importantly it is a study of the spiritual development -- for several cases, the transformation -- of a number of people whose lives the reader follows closely over the course of years.
This my second reading of War and Peace. The first time around, 37 years ago when I was in prison for taking part in an act of civil disobedience protesting the Vietnam War, it was the translation done by Constance Garnett. She did ground-breaking work introducing English-language readers to Russian authors, but took a great many liberties with her translations.
This long-awaited new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is the most readable I know of, and (judging from the earlier translations) is probably the closest English-language edition of the Russian original, including the decision to retain French in all the places Tolstoy used it, with translation into English appearing as footnotes.
Tolstoy's masterpiece remains as vital today as it was when it was originally published.