What Happened to Anna K., by Irina Reyn. Published 2008 by Touchstone. Literary Fiction.
Irina Reyn's slim, elegant novel What Happened to Anna K. is an updated retelling of Leo Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina, set in modern-day New York among the Bukharian Jewish community of Queens, which originated in Central Asia inside the former Soviet Union. In the United States, at least as depicted here, they remain a tight-knit community defined as much by language and origin as social customs and convention.
Anna K. is a beautiful fortyish woman married to Alex K., an older businessman who gives Anna everything but passion. She knows she doesn't love Alex K. but marries him anyway, then buries herself in novels and sedates herself with beautiful clothes and the confidence that she herself is beautiful and attractive. When she falls in love with David, a younger, handsome writer who attracts Anna in part because he is so attracted to her, Anna's life falls apart. That he is the boyfriend of her young cousin Katia causes a rift between the two women. Katia herself is the beloved of the moody Lev, a romantic like Anna who buries himself in French movies.
Like her literary namesake and inspiration, Anna K. loses everything to this ill-fated love affair- her marriage, her friends, her position in her community, her cousin's affection- even her young son. Lev's life takes the opposite path- he gains everything through his love for Katia. Unlike Tolstoy's Anna, though, Reyn's Anna never fully comes to life. Too indebted to her literary source, Reyn doesn't give Anna the imagination or the strength to see her way out, and though the conclusion of Anna K.'s life mirrors that of Anna Karenina, Reyn never makes Anna K.'s situation desperate enough to make her choice believable. When Anna Karenina kills herself, it's because she's lost everything- absolutely everything- and has no where else to go. Anna K., a bright 21st century woman, has options if only she would reach for them. Instead, because her choice is preordained by Reyn's choice to retell this story so faithfully, Anna K.'s death felt hollow and meaningless. There was no reason for this woman to behave this way. Really- suicide is not the only alternative when faced with moving from New York to Iowa.
That aside, I enjoyed What Happened to Anna K. very much. I enjoyed learning about the Bukharian Jewish community, relished Lev and Katia's sweet but real love story, and Reyn is a talented writer who has created an interesting, accomplished novel. I like how she built Anna K. and Lev as very similar people who wind up in breathtakingly different places, and how she shows that Lev survives because he is able to recognize fantasy as fantasy and still appreciate and immerse himself in real life- his wife, their son, their shared culture and their community. Anna K. cannot make this leap, and it is her downfall. She expects her fantasies to save her. My disappointment with the novel is my disappointment that Anna can imagine so little for herself, and that Reyn won't let her end her story any other way.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.