“The first few weeks of marriage were nothing like a French film.”
A novel that reworks and updates Anna Karenina? To be honest I was skeptical–after all, the tragedy that destroys a 19th century Russian woman is not the same for a New Yorker living in the 21st century. Well I was curious, but Irina Reyn’s novel What Happened to Anna K? is sublime. Here’s the novel’s beginning, and when I read this passage, I knew I was in for a treat:
“Anna K. was not the only pale woman in a black shearling to glide along 108th Street in Rego Park, but she was the most striking. A Tajik shopkeeper, about to weigh a bag of unripe persimmons, paused in order to follow the course of Anna’s backside as it made its way down the block.”
And this sentence establishes the idea that Anna thinks she’s different somehow from other women, and that somehow she’s been intended for something different–something better.
What set her apart from the others, at least in her own mind? ”
When the novel begins, Anna is engaged and about to marry the much older, very wealthy Alex. As part of the tight-knit Russian-Jewish community, Anna’s mother is delighted that her daughter is finally getting married and that she’s made such a good choice–a man with a similar background and the same religion. Meanwhile Anna is having doubts. Anna is addicted to romantic ideas largely gained from novels, but at 36, Anna is beginning to feel that life is passing her by. Deflated by a number of broken love affairs, and deciding that her male romantic ideal isn’t making an appearance, Anna succumbs to pressure and dates then agrees to marry the very wealthy, very polished and much older Alex.
She doesn’t love Alex, and at times her indifference mingles with a shade of distaste. Alex remains objectified to Anna, but she enjoys his expensive courtship, the luxury that surrounds him, and she allows herself to be wooed. Fully intending to break off the relationship she tells herself “one more date, one more date.” But loathing her constricted life and her humble background Anna slides into marriage.
It seems the perfect match–Alex, now has a beautiful wife, and Anna finally has all the finer things in life. Three years of marriage, bored to tears, and one baby later, Anna is facing 40. But then she meets a young writer….
This tragic tale of Anna’s decline is balanced by another romance between Anna’s young cousin Katia and the French movie addicted pharmacist Lev. Lev, another romantic at heart, holds out for true love in spite of immense pressure from his Bukharian-Jewish family. He thinks he’s met his ideal in Katia–a girl he’s admired from afar for years. Unfortunately for Lev, he should have taken Katia to a French film fest on the first date.
Author Irina Reyn paints a sympathetic portrait of Anna–a woman who succumbs to a loveless marriage while she finds the luxuries money can buy are addictive. What Happened to Anna K? is a marvelous first novel, and the author illustrates a world in which material wealth has replaced other, less definable goals and morality. Finely drawn, delicate and insightful, Reyn’s compelling novel focuses on the cost of stepping outside of one’s community, the pressures of conformity and the destructive force of isolation.