First, some preliminary business. (If you dislike boring disclaimers, you may skip this next paragraph.)
I am not a novel critic. I am not even much of a novel reader. The great bulk of my reading has always been non-fiction. Indeed, I used to believe that life was too short for fiction. Now, having grown a bit older and somewhat more sentimental, I have granted a place for it, grudgingly at first, but with gradually expanding enthusiasm. (Among the few fiction writers I have read, Tolkien has perhaps done the most, so far, to convince me of the genre's value.)
Fyodor Dostoevsky was a compulsive gambler and the son of an alcoholic - a perfect résumé for a writer. He wrote from 19th-century Russia, often on the precipice of destitution. The Brothers Karamazov was one of his last works, still bursting at the seams with the wild questions of a man desperately trying to understand the world. His own description of his character Dimitri Fyodorovich - "He's one of those that don't need millions, but need to resolve their thought" - seems to apply equally well to the author himself.
The Brothers Karamazov is certainly something of a classic, although perhaps not altogether exempt from Mark Twain's witticism: "Something everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read." Still, it is the kind of book that is constantly being referred to by learned lecturers, so it seems one's duty to read it if you want to keep up.
Reading Dostoevsky is a drastic and dramatic undertaking, and not entirely devoid of danger. (Of course, this perspective may simply be due to my inexperience, but I have already made my disclaimer, so I will refrain from further qualifying my review.) The book is intense, almost to the point of being claustrophobic; one has the continual sense that the characters are breathing in each other's faces. I have read precious little Russian literature beyond this, (I am very much looking forward to reading Tolstoy) but I suspect this dense atmosphere is somewhat cultural. Whether this is the case or no, it seems that the almost schizophrenic intensity of the characters and the dialogue can really begin to wreak havoc with your mind if you are not careful. I like to compare this type of literature with the Palantir - the seeing-stones of Tolkien's fantasy. They could be incredibly useful, provided you had the strength of will, as Aragorn did, to contend with and master what you saw. If you did not, and were merely, rashly curious, they could be incredibly destructive, as Pippin quickly discovered.
Dostoevsky's writing style also takes some getting used to. He assumes the perspective of a third-person narrator - a clearly visible one, which is not usually the case. This gives him the liberty to interject qualifications and background into the story, directly to the reader. At first I thought this was blatant author intrusion, but eventually I realized it was simply the model he had chosen to use to tell the story.
The work is quite obviously philosophical - it seemed to me that most of the characters were "set up" to have deep conversations that allow Dostoevsky to grapple with the questions of existence. This makes for stimulating reading, to be sure, but I think it also damages the believability of the characters to some extent. Granted, many of the dialogues take place under rather extraordinary circumstances, but I am still skeptical that people would realistically interact with such consistent passion and verbosity. As Wikipedia observes: "In comparison with Tolstoy, whose characters are realistic, the characters of Dostoevsky are usually more symbolic of the ideas they represent." That is why I say the work is primarily philosophical.
Humor is sparse, but it is there, hidden in the corners. Take for instance this sheepish admission from the narrator: - "Today's item in the newspaper Rumors was entitled 'From Skotoprigonyevsk' (alas, that is the name of our town; I have been concealing it all this time)." And this on page 573! But do not expect the book to be funny. That is not its purpose.
Similarly, do not expect the book to have a satisfying ending. It has an ending, yes, but it seems almost arbitrary. The story is not left hanging in midair in a suspenseful sense, but there is little real closure. The whole throbbing mass of emotion and drama is simply left lying in the middle of the room, as if waiting for a sequel. But sequel there is not.
Overall, I think I expected more from the book than I received, but it does command respect, and certain passages are indeed quite brilliant. It leaves one with the unmistakable impression that, whatever else it is, it is not a tame book. Read at your own risk.