I stayed up late last night to finish reading What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn. It is a modern take on Anna Karenina that was a surprisingly great read. So often these ‘updated’ versions of classics fall terribly short of the books they’re trying to emulate, which is why I usually avoid them, but this one was good. Set in modern-day New York City, it tells the story of Anna, a Russian immigrant who’s spent most of her life in America but is still trapped within the confines of a tight-knit Russian community. By the time her late thirties roll around, she marries out of a sense of obligation and desperation, giving up on her lifelong romantic ideals inspired by fiction and Woody Allen films. Her marriage is unexciting and eventually she embarks on an affair with a young man, leaving her husband and son behind. The ending, in keeping with the original story, is tragic.
This book was good for a number of reasons. First of all, I love Anna Karenina. It’s one of my all-time favourite books. I was impressed by how closely Irina Reyn matched the two stories, despite the fact that the two Annas inhabit entirely different worlds; and yet it didn’t feel forced. Anna the New Yorker was just as real and well-developed and believable as Anna the Muscovite — maybe even more so because I can relate to her setting.
Second, I was fascinated by the descriptions of the Russian and Bukharian Jewish immigrant communities. They are described in such detail and sound so similar to the tight-knit Croatian community that my husband was raised in. My Swiss Mennonite family immigrated to North America in the 1700s, so any major cultural differences have mostly been ironed out over the course of three centuries. For families who have arrived in the past several decades, however, it’s an entirely different situation and one that I’m very unfamiliar with.
One key element in What Happened to Anna K., and also most bewildering in my personal experience, is both the Russian and Croatian communities’ desire to recreate mini homelands in the new world by avoiding and/or condemning marriage with outsiders and even restricting platonic interactions with non-community members. (There are exceptions, of which my husband is an example.) It seems that the ultimate goal, both for Anna K’s family and for my husband’s family, is to ‘keep the race pure,’ so to speak. The importance of marrying another Russian or Croatian (and one who also hails from the right city/family/background) trumps the quest for personal happiness in the eyes of traditional parents.
Third, the Anna of What Happened to Anna K. is less likeable than the original Anna. It’s said that Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina as a condemnation against adultery, yet ended up falling in love with his protagonist along the way. The ‘new’ Anna, however, is hard to understand. Perhaps because she’s set against a modern backdrop that I understand better, it’s easier to see how she sabotages her own happiness by consistently making bad choices. Of course I feel sorry that her marriage sucks, but that doesn’t excuse her decision to start an affair — and leave her baby son behind in the process. Her Russian friends call her “unnatural” and I’d agree to some extent. I share her love of idealism, but there comes a time when a person has to stop living in the clouds, in romantic fiction, and realize that life isn’t a fairy tale. Chasing the fairy tale will never end in happiness.
Anyways, it was a great read and one that I’d recommend, especially for anyone who has read and enjoyed Anna Karenina.