What Happened to Anna K by Irina Reyn

April 13, 2010

Plot summary (with spoilers): What Happened to Anna K is an updated retelling of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. As such, anyone who has read the original already knows how the major plot points play out: Anna, bored with her loveless marriage to a wealthy, older man, has an affair with a younger one. She leaves her husband, child, and old life for the new man, only to realize too late that things won’t work out with him, either. Seeing no alternative, a despondent Anna flings herself beneath an oncoming train to end all her suffering.

In Reyn’s version, the setting is Rego Park in Queens, and then later, the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Anna doesn’t marry until she is 38, at which point she is swept off her feet by the 50-something Alex’s money and power. It’s not long, however, before she finds herself longing for more. She thinks she finds it in David, an aspiring writer who used to date Anna’s cousin Katia. David and Anna begin their torrid affair, and Anna soon leaves Alex and little Serge behind.

At first, as is often the case in love affairs, things are great with David and Anna. But it’s not long before “real life” sets in, and mundane concerns about jobs and money overshadow the more romantic subjects they used to talk about. Anna then suspects David of cheating on her, which compels her to more or less search for someone of her own. She settles on Lev, Katia’s husband, and makes an awkward scene at a New Year’s party. After that, people gossip about Anna more than ever.

The crisis comes about when David accepts a teaching job in Iowa. Anna cannot imagine having a life in Iowa, but she has no options left in New York either. Moving back in with her parents is out of the question, because as David said, Rego Park is somewhere you begin, not somewhere you end. Anna thinks perhaps she can have something with Lev, so she goes to his apartment to basically throw herself at him. But he’s in love with Katia, and won’t give in. The suicide notion comes while Anna is standing at a subway station, and is merely reported in the news as an “incident” in Queens.

Liked:

  • Reyn’s writing style was pretty good. I thought she did a nice job of capturing details and setting the scene. I didn’t know anything about Bukharan Jews prior to reading this book, but I came away feeling that I know at least a bit about the culture now.

Disliked:

  • Anna K felt like such a distant character throughout the entire novel. Since this was a retelling, the author couldn’t rely on “surprises” or a strong plot to carry the reader through. Most readers would already know the basic plot outline. So all that’s left is creating memorable characters. Unfortunately, I think Reyn falls way short here. I didn’t like, identify with, or sympathize with any of the characters in this book, which made it very difficult to get to the end. I know the original Anna K. isn’t the most sympathetic heroine in all of literature, but I at least felt something for her when she pulled the train stunt. In this version, all I could think was, “Good, it’s almost over.”
  • It was a bit disconcerting to have these Tolstoy-era characters living amidst cell phones, Lexuses, iPods, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, credit card processing, etc. I know that’s part and parcel of getting an updated version, but these references to current brands really took me out of the story.
  • The Lev/Katia storyline was not nearly as compelling as the original Levin/Kitty one from Tolstoy. In fact, those two characters greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the original, so to have that balance lacking in this version was simply another strike against Reyn’s work.

Rating:

I was looking forward to What Happened to Anna K, as it won several awards and was listed on one of Amazon’s “Best of” lists. Author Irina Reyn shows some gumption in attempting to rewrite one of the greatest novels of all-time, but in my opinion comes up short in a number of areas. She definitely has skill and talent as a writer; however, her vision of Anna Karenina was boring and lacked any depth. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

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