BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Irina Reyn
Filed under: Literary
It would be unfair of me to label What Happened to Anna K. somewhere between Tolstoy and chick lit, not least because I’m nowhere near an expert on either of those things. Still, the title of this novel tells us Reyn was cribbing heavily from (or, if you prefer, “updating”) Anna Karenina, and the setting and routine—21st century New York, with characters whose primary hobbies are shopping and talking about relationships—isn’t far from Sex and the City-style fashion-drama.
Despite its heavy Tolstoyan influences, I’m going to try to discuss What Happened to Anna K. on its own merits, as a standalone work. Essentially, it’s quite well-written, but so repetitive and and formulaic that it’s not as good as I wish it was.
Reyn falls into that bittersweet grouping of writers to watch who haven’t yet written books to read.
The premise of Anna K. focuses on Russian women of marrying age in New York, and their problems with the old Russian marriage traditions. Specifically, there’s the eponymous Anna K. (K. being her husband’s last name, which Reyn coyly keeps initialized throughout the novel), and her cousin Katia.
Anna is 35 and quickly getting too old for most eligible Russian bachelors; she has refined artistic tastes and desperately wants to be the subject of a brilliant writer’s epic novel. Katia is about a decade younger, and unhappy with most of her potential suitors; she’s not much interested in literature or art films. The narrative includes a few passages from other characters as well, but these two are the central characters, and the most interesting.
The two cousins are subtly, deeply jealous of each other and each other’s relationships and abilities with men. And they’re deeply unhappy with their own abilities and their own relationships. The plot concerns a series of nested, intertwining romances involving one woman or the other.
In the first half of the novel, Katia’s story is the more interesting one, perhaps because Anna spends the first half wallowing in self-pity, condescending to her rich, boring husband, and keeping their son at arm’s length. Meanwhile, Katia is earnest, if simpler, and manages to approach something akin to hope and happiness.
Anna’s desire to be the subject of a novel doesn’t help Anna K., other than to point (not so subtly) to Anna Karenina. She’s already a relatively passive character, and her desire to inspire something instead of create something doesn’t help.
In the novel’s second half, Anna’s story is more interesting, as she actually takes action—though, of course, she’s never satisfied with the results. Katia’s story becomes a reflection of Anna’s from the first half, as Katia becomes more and more jealous of her older cousin, and less and less content with her own lot.
Anna K., as I mentioned, is very well-written, and Reyn excels at grounding the rather ephemeral feelings of her characters with intimate details, and what literature classes call “defamiliarizing,” or taking ordinary occurrences and feelings and making them feel new. Such as this passage, where Anna tries to pin down her unhappiness with her husband:
So he ran, she thought, many people ran, didn’t they? Cheaper than joining a gym, less of a commitment. And he had grown repulsive to her, hadn’t he? The way he signaled his desire for sex—a glass of eau de vie followed by a single raised eyebrow. His secondhand opinions, his certainty about everything—many people in their fifties still probed for answers, still felt there was much left to learn. His crime: Not knowing her, not acknowledging that her curiosities took off where his ended, that she would always harbor a fondness for red-sauce restaurants with checkered tablecloths, prefer Oreos to Payard, and bite off the top of a piece of beef jerky without removing the plastic wrapping.
Ultimately, though, a novel made up of derivations and familiar occurrences, no matter how well-written, begins to feel repetitive and derivative. There’s a lot of unhappiness in this novel, unhappiness in marriage and in affairs, frustration with the way the world works. After a while, the palette of characters’ emotions and emotional responses is pretty much exhausted, and starts to repeat itself.
Anna K. is more entertaining than I had thought it would be, and definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of Tolstoy or Anna Karenina. As a standalone, though, it doesn’t feel like everything Reyn has to offer. I’ll read her next novel, but I won’t be rereading or fondly remembering this one any time soon.