Even in her unbridled fantasies, happiness had been difficult to conjure.
The Anna (Roitman) K. of Irina Reyn's new novel What Happened to Anna K. (Touchstone) is doomed from the start. Literature and movies have blurred her conception of reality. She wants Heathcliff and Darcy, romance, Dostoyevsky-esque intensity combined with fairytale endings. But she recognizes that even in her romantic imaginings, there's always a tinge of sadness, of unresolved conflict, of stormy situation. It's as though she needs to exist at the apex of every story, unable to move toward the denouement. And in this modern re-imagining of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina that takes place within New York City's Russian immigrant community, Anna's intellectual depressiveness is her fatal downfall.
Here is Reyn describing Anna's inability to reconcile reality with fantasy: "...Anna rejected the facts before her in favor of characters and situations and myths operating more vibrantly inside her own mind. That she lived most fully not in her life, but on the page."
Reyn (a Russian immigrant herself) has written a beautiful debut novel, especially because (or despite the fact that?) it's inspired, at some points very explicitly, by the original AK. I wondered, as I was reading it, whether a reader uninitiated to the wonders of AK would appreciate Reyn's book as much (or more?). Please, if you've never read Tolstoy's book and you read Reyn's, let me know what you think.
However, the sections in which Reyn focuses on Anna's struggles as an immigrant -- and her suggestion that Anna's depression is in fact because she's an immigrant, a Russian immigrant especially -- seem weak, for a few reasons. First, they seem a bit heavy-handed -- a bit more about telling than showing. Secondly, because they take away from the discussion of how Anna's intellectual life colors her unhappiness. And third, because the original Anna Karenina had no such struggle (true, the section on Levin's farming addressed questions of class and Russian hierarchy, but in a more abstract way). For a book that relies so heavily on the plot structure and themes of Tolstoy's work, the addition of this social commentary in What Happened is jarring.
Overall, though, it's a gripping read. B+.