Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Anna K. is a crowd-stoppingly beautiful woman just "the wrong side of 35" who has spent her life hopping from relationship to relationship, just wanting to be some great writer's muse. Now, she has finally decided to settle down on the Upper East Side with a kindly and extremely wealthy Russian man her entire Russian family approves of and whose money will allow her to continue her designer lifestyle. A train ride away in Brooklyn, her cousin Katya, a good, observant, Bukharian Jewish girl, finally finds a boyfriend after years of ostracism by her community because of a malicious rumor that was spread about her in high school. But Anna sees in her cousin's man the possible love of her life, the struggling writer who might make her immortal. In this modern retelling of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Irina Reyn puts a fresh (and short!! 288 pages!) spin on the classic novel by placing it in New York's affluent Russian immigrant community.

It cannot be denied that Irina Reyn is a talented and sharp-eyed writer. I look forward to seeing what else she will publish in the future. And this is certainly an effective modern retelling; she has created a very real world and translated all the malaise of the original (which, I confess, I haven't read, just know about from pop culture) into a very believable modern plot.

I also have to admit that I spent the whole book waiting for a train to come along--how could I not have? But Reyn succeeds in not making the attraction of the book hinge on any kind of surprise. We all know how Anna will meet her untimely end; Reyn's accomplishment is the rendering of the mythology and the creation of a believable modern character who chooses to make the same false steps as Tolstoy's Anna.

Alas I didn't love the act of reading this book; I think perhaps because it was too much of a "project" book, and I don't have any romantic attachment to the original. Anna is such a supremely unlikable character, with only an academic understanding of human morality and no personal engagement with it, and seeing a bunch of rich Manhattanites trotting around their label bags and expensive lunches gets very dull very quickly to me. Watching Katya's story unfold was more interesting to me--at least I sympathized with Katya--and was the reason I kept reading. But regardless of my dislike for the topic, I think this is a very interesting book by a promising author; I would certainly recommend it to any who have read and/or loved the original.


Escribo said...

This is very interesting, because your problems with this book were my problems with the original Anna K., which I finished reading last month (Total reading time for me -- 32 hours over 4.5 months [I've never clocked a book before.] Worth it? I'm still not sure.)

For most of the book, I didn't care about the blandly beautiful Anna in Tolstoy's original, and felt like I was being led through a simplistic morality exercise exploring types of love (as well as Russian peasant haying techniques -- I actually preferred the haying techniques). There were great scenes/set pieces of course, and I was grateful for a record of this period in Russian history, and more hints about Tolstoy's actual life. But apart from the climactic train scene and some innovative writing techniques, it wasn't as good as I expected. Certainly not the "best novel ever written."

I say all this wondering if this modern version is actually quite successful in being a comment on the original, including its weaknesses/peculiarities. It would be fun to read them both.

moonrat said...

how fascinating. hmmmm. ANNA KARENINA is on my tbr list, so i guess i'll know soon how i feel about this...

gerry said...

I also found this novel a chore to read because Anna seemed so superficial, filled with her own ideas of self, and even if she was supposed to be well read, it was really limited to fiction which she took on a literal level and turned into sap. Lev did the same thing but loved movies instead of novels.

On the other hand, the novel was an interesting look at the immigrant experience in the United States. None of the characters left their immigrant roots, even if they arrived in America as children or, like Katya, were born in America. To use the wonderful metaphor Reyn presented: the characters remained rugalech (the Russians) with chocolate chips added eventually (America).

moonrat said...

gerry--thanks for your thoughtful comment. it's true; i did really enjoy the slice of Russian and Russian-American life.