ANNA KARENINA is a classic of modern literature. People from
around the world have read the realist tale of the conflicted
Russian Anna since its publication in the late 1800s, turning page
after brilliant page until Anna meets her tragic end.
Irina Reyn has written her own version of Tolstoy's most famous
work in WHAT HAPPENED TO ANNA K., putting Anna in contemporary New
York City. In some ways Reyn's tale follows the same path as the
original, but in other ways it veers off in different
Much to her parents’ delight, beautiful and alluring Anna
K. is finally getting married. In her late 30s, she is considered
almost past marriageable age in her Russian and Bukharian
community. Everyone is happy to see her wed the solid Russian
businessman Alex, almost 20 years her senior. They settle into a
comfortable life, successful and prosperous, and, as both are
immigrants, still connected to their shared Russian heritage. But
Anna is restless, and after her son is born, her discontent grows
and grows until she begins an affair with an Ashkenazic man named
David, her young cousin Katia's boyfriend. Katia is devastated as
is Alex, and Anna's family is disappointed, but she leaves her
husband and son to move in with David, distancing herself from the
community that defined her identity.
Over time, predictably, Anna and David's relationship sours.
Anna turns her attention briefly to Lev, Katia's husband, but
it’s too late. She has become a sad and unattractive shell of
the woman she was, and though Lev considers an affair with her, he
realizes it is the young and enigmatic Anna he was attracted to,
not the lonely and destructive one. Anna is a romantic in the
classic sense, and Reyn shows us what happens when romantic ideals
clash with harsh and unforgiving realities.
In another nod to Tolstoy, Lev's story --- his love for Katia
and his attraction to Anna, his coming of age as a man, husband and
father --- is by far more compelling than Anna's. But Reyn focuses
on Anna, leaving the reader wanting to spend more time with Lev.
Anna is not very likable, though who says main characters need to
be? Instead she is interesting, frustrating and often horrible. We
think we know --- because we’re familiar with the story of
Anna Karenina --- what happens to her in the end, and we are both
anxious and anticipatory of some final violent act.
Like Tolstoy, Reyn is concerned with marriage and divorce,
appearance versus reality, the pull of religion, belonging to a
tight-knit group, and suicide. But the story of Anna, Lev and Katia
is less successful, nuanced, entertaining and illuminating than the
story of Tolstoy's Anna, Levin and Kitty. In recreating a novel
understood to be one of the world's greatest, Reyn set herself up
for some unfair comparisons. Anna K.'s motivations, in her hands,
are difficult to understand, but the prose is mostly readable and
Even though Reyn uses Tolstoy's tale as a foundation, it is not
necessary to have read it first in order to appreciate WHAT
HAPPENED TO ANNA K. In fact, too much attention to the original may
distract readers from the ambitious story Reyn has to tell.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011
What Happened to Anna K.