three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
By: 
Irina Reyn
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-What Happened to Anna KRussian literature’s most tragic heroine converts to Judaism and emigrates to the boroughs of New York City in this modern take on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Reyn, who teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh, emigrated from Moscow to the United States as a child. This is her first novel.

The Story: A great deal of the fun in this sort of reimagining is seeing how the author converts staid, old elements into rowdy, new 21st-century ones, so mum’s the word on specific plot points. But for those who have never read the original: Anna, a young woman married to a wealthy aristocrat, feels stifled. She has material happiness but little else. Then she meets The Other Man (less rich and more intellectual) and falls desperately in love with him. Reyn’s version, which features the Russian-Jewish immigrant community in Manhattan and Rego Park, follows along these same rails (a train metaphor—ironists, take note) and ultimately ends up at the same station. But getting there in the 21st century is, of course, half the fun.
Touchstone. 256 pages. $24. ISBN 1416558934

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"[Reyn] is an astute chronicler of smart people making foolish choices. … What Happened to Anna K. moves swiftly, in short, emotionally resonant chapters, each a small epiphany leading the characters to their fates. Reyn makes you wish you could jump in and save them." Dan Cryer

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Reyn’s update, like the century she writes in, is faster, busier, more stylish, more self-conscious: it is ‘Sex and the City’ meets ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ … In her reformulated story, Reyn explores the intense conflicts between two visions of life, the bourgeois, unexamined life of ordinary marriage and family, vs. a version of life desired by those whose inner lives were formed by art, movies, books." Sherri Hallgren

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"It is possible to enjoy What Happened to Anna K. without having read Anna Karenina. Irina Reyn is a marvelous writer, with the ability to capture a character or set a scene in just a few sentences." Elizabeth Gold

Christian Science Monitor3 of 5 Stars
"[T]here’s no doubt that Anna is definitely harder to empathize with in her modern incarnation. … [It] helps that [Reyn is] interested in more than just writing a romance—using Anna to examine questions of how to have a happy life and how to forge an identity in an adopted country when your homeland has irrevocably changed." Yvonne Zipp

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Without knowing and loving the struggles of the original Anna, Anna K.’s story would be less compelling. … I did not believe that the shards of her Russian soul gathered and propelled her to that final choice. America had changed her too profoundly." Diana Wagman

Critical Summary

"Very good," said the critics, though some showed signs of wariness. Reyn writes beautiful, articulate prose, and every critic enjoyed reading about the world of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The caveats appeared when reviewers compared Reyn’s Anna to the classic model. Nineteenth-century Anna was crushed between the laws of society and her personal desires; today, a passionate affaire du coeur would end in a lazy afternoon jaunt down to divorce court—assuming the lovers in question were married to begin with. Reyn does use the conventions of immigrant culture to throw up cultural hedgerows in Anna’s path, but as the Christian Science Monitor remarked, "There were times while reading What Happened to Anna K. where I wanted to grab Anna by the shoulders and yell, ‘Get a job already!’"