What Happened to Anna K (Reyn)

What Happened to Anna K.
Irina Reyn, 2008
Simon & Schuster
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781416558941

Vivacious thirty-seven-year-old Anna K. is comfortably married to Alex, an older, prominent businessman from her tight-knit Russian-Jewish immigrant community in Queens.

But a longing for freedom is reignited in this bookish, overly romantic, and imperious woman when she meets her cousin Katia Zavurov's boyfriend, an outsider and aspiring young writer on whom she pins her hopes for escape. As they begin a reckless affair, Anna enters into a tailspin that alienates her from her husband, family, and entire world.

In nearby Rego Park's Bukharian-Jewish community, twenty-seven-year-old pharmacist Lev Gavrilov harbors two secret passions: French movies and the lovely Katia. Lev's restless longing to test the boundaries of his sheltered life powerfully collides with Anna's. But will Lev's quest result in life's affirmation rather than its destruction?

Exploring struggles of identity, fidelity, and community, What Happened to Anna K. is a remarkable retelling of the Anna Karenina story brought vividly to life by an exciting young writer. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Moscow, Russia
Raised—Fairlawn, New Jersey, USA
Education—B.A., Rutgers University; M.A.
   University of Pittsburgh; M.F.A., Bennington
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York, and
   Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Irina Reyn is a fiction and nonfiction writer who divides her time between Pittsburgh and Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in anthologies and publications such as The Forward, San Francisco Chronicle, The Moscow Times, Nextbook and Post Road. Born in Moscow, Irina was raised in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.  (From the publisher and Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
It takes a lot of self-confidence to suggest that your first novel is a modern-day retelling of Anna Karenina. But once you're finished marveling at Reyn's audacity, her formidable storytelling gift sweeps you along and keeps you turning the pages in rapt anticipation, even as you're aware that the sound in the distance is the rumble of that inevitable approaching train.
Jeff Turrentine - New York Times

Set among early 21st-century Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City, Reyn's debut beautifully adapts Anna Karenina's social melodrama for a decidedly different set of Russians. Anna, 30-something with a string of bad relationships behind her and a restless, literarily inclined soul, is wooed into marriage by the financial stability and social appropriateness of Alex K., an older businessman with roots in her Rego Park, Queens, community. As Anna chafes at her unromantic life, trouble hits in the form of David, the hipster-writer boyfriend of her sweet, naïve cousin, Katia. The furiously flying sparks between Anna and David provide cover as Katia is quietly pursued by Lev, a young Bukharan Jew who, like Anna, is a dreamer whose relationship with the émigré community is fraught. Reyn's Anna is perhaps even harder to sympathize with than Tolstoy's original, but Reyn's sparkling insight into the Russian and Bukharan Jewish communities, and the mesmerizing intensity of her prose, make this debut a worthy remake. Lev's and Anna's divergent trajectories and choices illuminate how perilous the balance between self and society remains.
Publishers Weekly

All positive reviews are alike; each negative review is negative in its own way. Fortunately, there's no need to be negative here. Tolstoy himself would surely have given a nod to Reyn's re-creation of his Karenina, transported from glittering czarist Petersburg to Rego Park, Queens (a tragedy in itself!). Meet beautiful, alluring, Jewish Anna Roitman, who languidly accepts the proposal of Alex K., a Russian immigrant who's made good enough to escape the outer boroughs and establish himself on Manhattan's Upper East Side. You know the rest: wealth, childbirth, boredom, a new lover, and Anna K. forsakes home and hearth for her modern-day Vronsky, a struggling, ne'er-do-well writer and his six-story walk-up. First novelist Reyn, whose stories have appeared in Tin House, One Story, and the LA Times, among other publications, deftly fleshes out her unerring version of the Tolstoy classic. Equally absorbing is her pitch-perfect rendering of the life of newly arrived Russian immigrants in such neighborhoods as Brighton Beach and Rego Park. An impressive crossover; recommended not only for lovers of the classics but also those who prefer their fiction lite.
Edward Cone - Library Journal

(Starred review.) Reyn captures and reveals the intricately layered culture of “sausage immigrants,” casting the reader from New York’s Upper East Side, to the outskirts of Queens, and down to Coney Island. Her characters inhabit the interstitial place between immigration and assimilation, tradition and innovation, poised to create a postmodern culture of their own design. Pair this with Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002). —Heather Paulson

In a tricky but deft debut, Anna Karenina is reincarnated as an Upper East Side cougar. Reyn lays her own ironic portrait of the Russian Jewish immigrant community in New York (its taste for discount shopping, its dubious fashion sense, etc.) over Anna Karenina's familiar framework. Anna Roitman was nine when her parents left Moscow for Queens, where she grew up bullied at school but found distraction in romantic fiction, reading Wuthering Heights 14 times. Her "Russian soul," her immigrant otherness and physical charms seem to set her apart, but after a sequence of unhappy love affairs she eventually enters into a late, loveless marriage with wealthy Alex K., with whom she has a son, Serge. Still yearning for intellectual companionship and "the wild beating of the heart," however, she falls for David, a young adjunct comp assistant professor and the boyfriend of her cousin Katia. Unable to keep the affair secret, Anna confesses her love to Alex and leaves her comfortable home to live with David where, after the initial rapture, anxiety and jealousy set in and money is tight. Meanwhile another romantic, Lev, has married Katia but fantasizes about Anna. Lev's marriage trembles but does not fall. Anna, despairing as David's shortcomings grow clearer and her own choices narrow, finds her destiny on Lexington Avenue, at the 6 subway station. Although short on tragic impact and mildly anachronistic, this transposition of a 19th-century literary paradigm to the 21st nevertheless offers wit and insight, and a pungent portrait of New York.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Though What Happened to Anna K. is a sharply contemporary novel, there are many structural nods to its source material, such as the introduction to new characters through the impersonal perspective of the wedding videographer. How else is the narrative like that of a nineteenth-century novel? Why do you think David's perspective is never fully revealed, unlike most of the other characters in the novel?

2. Describe the various types of romantic idealism depicted in the novel. Is there a conflict between Anna's traditional romanticism, tied to heroes like Darcy and Heathcliff, and her dreams of a Woody Allen-style New York love affair? How do these imagined passions compare to Lev's longing for the romance of French films? How do these scenarios contrast with real life? In what ways are these ideals destructive?

3. Anna is seen both from her own perspective and through the eyes of others. How does her sense of herself differ from how she is perceived? Is her own vision of herself the true one, or is she at times blind to truths that others observe?

4. In what ways is beauty used as currency in Anna's world? Why do you think Anna's aging changes her outlook so dramatically? If she had not been raised with the goal of attractiveness, would her story have been different? Do you think this standard for women is universal or specific to Anna's community?

5. Why do you think Anna never voices complaints within her marriage? Can Anna fault Alex for not knowing her, when she never truly attempted to communicate? Is she later guilty of not wanting to know the real David?

6. Anna wonders, "Is there room for the comfort of routine and the wild beating of the heart to coexist in a single life?" (Page 76) Why are these concepts at odds with one another? Do you believe that these two aspects of love can be combined in a relationship?

7. Meeting with Nadia at Bloomingdale's, Anna notices that "it seemed that no one cared she had had an affair; her biggest crime was in shattering their shared mythology by acting on it." (Page 137) Why do you think the "mythology" of marriage and money is so closely guarded? Why is it fragile? Why do you think these values take the place of moral consideration in this world?

8. How does Anna's tragedy compare to the histories of older generations -- their tales of poverty, starvation, illness, and persecution? Why is Anna separated from the "shared narrative" (page 40) of the more insulated Bukharian Jews? How does her broadened world and its expanded options help to create her depression?

9. Discuss the use of trains in What Happened to Anna K. Why do you think the train is such a powerful image for Anna? How does it evolve as a symbol throughout the novel?

10. Many possible causes of Anna's unhappiness are discussed, from her passion for the world of books to her alienation from every culture as an Americanized immigrant. Ultimately, why do you think Anna is so desperate to be saved by true love? Why does she feel the need to be a big story?

11. In both Tolstoy's epigraph and the context of David's father's book, Reyn mentions the idea that "it is in the everyday that history is revealed." (Page 178) How do you think this work speaks to the history of our own time?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

top of page (summary)


Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2022