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What happened to Anna K.

A modern take on a tragic romance.

By Yvonne Zipp / August 19, 2008



All happy heroines resemble one another, each unhappy one is unhappy in her own way. Although, actually, readers of Irina Reyn’s debut novel, What Happened to Anna K. might notice that her heroine’s brand of unhappiness bears certain similarities to a tragic figure of classic Russian literature.

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Reyn, a Russian-American who emigrated from Moscow as a child, has scooped up Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and carried her over to the New World with her – lock, stock, and affair. Her Anna K. is a Russian Jew whose family lives in a Russian enclave in Queens. Fast approaching middle age with a dead-end job in publishing, Anna agrees to marry the wealthy Alex K. She has a baby, Serge, and is still sorting out the compromises of her life when she sets eyes on her younger cousin Katia’s boyfriend, an adjunct professor and would-be novelist.

Anna K., a romantic who read “Wuthering Heights” 14 times growing up, has always longed to be the main character of a novel – preferably a big 19th-century one by a literary giant. “She would imagine it was she who was the heroine, willing powerful lovers to prostrate themselves before her, allowing them to sob their love to her in the middle of a rainstorm, at balls, inside carriages.” (Reyn has a great deal of fun with such jokes – on Page 5, for example, she announces that “ever since she was a little girl, Anna had loved trains.”)

After she marries Alex K., Anna has an exclusive address on the Upper East Side and enough tasteful black dresses to enchant the entire male population of Rego Park. But she is as out of place among the Russian nouveau riche as she was among her extended family’s conservative form of Judaism. There’s a hysterical scene when Anna’s book club dismisses “Wuthering Heights” as so much nonsense and opt for Sophie Kinsella, of the “Shopaholic” series, for their next choice. “C’mon ladies ... who would you prefer?” Nadia, the Princess Betsy stand-in, asks. “The caveman running around the forest or that nice Linton?”

Not to give too much away, but just as a remake of “Pride & Prejudice” isn’t likely to end with Elizabeth as a penniless spinster wishing she’d taken up Mr. Collins on his generous proposal, an update of “Anna Karenina” isn’t apt to conclude with the main character being showered with roses by her adoring husband.

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