Anna Karenina is alive and well

Irina Reyn's brisk, audacious first novel transforms Tolstoy's Russians into soulless N.Y. immigrants.

August 17, 2008|Diana Wagman | Diana Wagman, a Cal State Long Beach professor, is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."

What Happened to Anna K.

A Novel

Irina Reyn

Touchstone: 244 pp., $24


The JACKET flap on my college copy of "Anna Karenina" calls it "a masterpiece that bared the Russian soul." That dark Russian spirit, brooding and complicated, is what makes Tolstoy's story wonderful and his characters memorable. Religion, society and morality are all tied up in the distrust of any amount of happiness. Even the children are worried all the time.

"What Happened to Anna K.," the entertaining debut novel by Irina Reyn, is a modern retelling of "Anna Karenina" set in the Russian immigrant community of Queens. In Chapter 3, titled "The Great Russian Soul," the author tries to define it by quoting Dostoevsky and listing its modern permutations. More important, she speculates about whether her character Anna K. has a Russian soul or is completely Americanized. It seems Anna is more American than Russian, but Reyn decides that "shards of the Russian soul might have lodged themselves within her, unwilling to be removed." It is an interesting chapter in which Reyn speaks directly to the reader, much like authors did in 19th century novels. We are privy to her direct observations of the 35-year-old Anna and the community. This chapter, while humorous and fascinating, carries a significant weight. How significant will be apparent only at the end.

"Anna Karenina" is a favorite book of mine, often reread, and I was apprehensive at Reyn's audacity. But "What Happened to Anna K." is a wonderful read, and the similarities and updated moments are a delight. Just as Anna Karenina meets her undoing, the Count Vronsky, in a train station, so Anna K. meets David Zuckerman, the man who will derail her life, while waiting for a train. Tolstoy's young, sweet Kitty is Katia in Reyn's novel, and Reyn makes her believably kind, protected and clueless, even in post-9/11 New York. Lev is Lev in both novels, lovable for his awkward universality, but instead of farming he is a pharmacist, and instead of retreating to the peasants, he hides in movie theaters hoping to be absorbed into the world of French films.

"What Happened to Anna K." abbreviates the Russian novel to predominantly Anna's story of marriage and adultery and their conventions. It is a fun read, almost a guilty pleasure at a brisk 244 pages, versus the 868 pages in my Bantam Classics edition of "Anna Karenina." Reyn submerges us in a little-known subculture, the "sausage immigrants," replete with the shopping, the food, a flavorful smattering of Russian words and names, as well as the pressure to remain true to cultural roots. Anna's mother misuses American aphorisms -- "you are no young chicken yourself" -- and she and her husband "no longer read Dostoyevsky . . . after thirty years of communism, didn't they deserve Danielle Steel?" The first half of the book is lively and humorous, and then Anna leaves her husband and son for David, and the inevitable cannot be far away. Anna K.'s tale is enthralling right up to the end -- and then "What Happened to Anna K." lost me.

A book -- even one so tied to another work -- must be able to stand on its own. Tolstoy's Anna inspired me with her fierce hunger for self-discovery and autonomy and her refusal to settle for societal expectations. I cried when she threw herself under that train. Without knowing and loving the struggles of the original Anna, Anna K.'s story would be less compelling. She is self-centered and unfeeling. Her decisions are not foisted upon her by society but are based on her egotism. Her love for David revolves around his making her the main character of his first novel. Everything is all about her in a distinctly American way. Therefore her ending, not unexpected, left me dry-eyed. 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. Chapter 3 notwithstanding, I expected her to turn instead to therapy and Prozac.

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