By Irina Reyn
Touchstone. 242 pp. $24
Poor Anna K. She "frittered her twenties away, dating schmucks who were always leaving the country, men who could barely pay for themselves, who wore frayed T-shirts to fancy restaurants."
Swept up by romantic and literary fantasies, Anna K. imagined her "mythical husband would make enthusiastic love to her body, would lavish upon it worshipful caresses, kisses of bottomless awe, and then, still red from exertion, from the pleasure he was able to evoke, would look through her as though performing a biopsy on her soul."
Anna's future would involve "searing political essays, powerful lovers, and a work of art shaped by the most idiosyncratic emigre mind since Nabokov."
Alas, it didn't turn out that way. So, in her late 30s, Anna K. married a businessman of 56, "well-dressed, polite," had a son named Serge, or Seryozha, grew dissatisfied.
Haven't we heard some of this before, if not in fluent Americanese? No, we haven't! She's not that Anna K., the one for whom Oprah did cartwheels a few years ago, the lady Tolstoy transformed into a secular icon and touchstone (What better publisher of this novel?) for Russian womanhood.
Or at least not exactly. The Anna K. offered us by Irina R. - that is, Irina Reyn, a wise, insightful first novelist who now lives and teaches in Pittsburgh - came to Queens, N.Y., from Moscow with her parents as a child. In that respect,
What Happened to Anna K.
tracks territory we've come to know in the rollicking fiction of Gary Shteyngart (
The Russian Debutante's Handbook
), the crystalline scenes of Lara Vapnyar (
There Are Jews in My House
), and others: the upshot of the Russian-Jewish emigration to the United States several decades ago.
Its progeny are smarty-pants young Russian American writers who now remember those difficult days in which everyone noticed their accent when they were "only trying to order a spinach salad" or "rent a pair of bowling shoes," leading them to wonder whether they would always "have to be from somewhere."
Yet Reyn also wants to partake of a late-breaking genre on the American literary scene, exemplified by novels such as Geraldine Brooks' Pulitzer Prize-winning
, which imagined a fuller life for the missing father in Louisa May Alcott's
, and Jon Clinch's provocative
, which adjusted camera angles on Twain's
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
. Reyn wants to fool with classic literature, much as theater directors such as Peter Sellars and Andrei Serban gleefully rearrange familiar drama.
Reyn takes the "recast classics" movement in another direction, shaping an up-to-date A.K. universe from the Russian-immigrant stronghold of Rego Park, Queens, where kids respect their
, to the movin'-up parts of Manhattan. Her Anna K. knows these characters, who speak "a Russian-English patois, Americanizing their Russian, Russifying their English."
Tolstoy's masterpiece, of course, created a world from the wrenching tale of how Anna Karenina reacts to one of life's great challenges: what to do when, having settled into a less-than-ideal marriage, one falls madly, head-over-heels in love with someone else.
We expect an Anna K. novelist to possess certain skills, and Reyn displays them, such as acidic description of a woman's dissatisfaction with a partner who's mainly tolerated, whose usual escape from suffocation is "to go for an evening walk, making brief contact with other people by passing them, gulping in fragments of their sentences."
Anna K. then returns home to the inevitable:
"Alex peeled down her underwear, his teeth pecked at her skin. She felt suffocated beneath her own hair, his fleshy lips, gentle bites, and all those words - why did he have to talk so much? What was he saying? Dorogaia Anyechka, again, dorogaia, the word now mangled, stifled.
"If she relaxed, if she thought of the actor Andrew McCarthy, whose poster she'd had on her walls as a teenager, or even the guy from the train station, it would all be less painful, she was sure. . . . Here, his touch was jabbing and belligerent, insisting on itself."
Reyn also convincingly renders Anna K.'s enduring idealism about love, and bold spirit in pursuing it, as she gears up for the party at which she'll flaunt her postpartum return to form, relishing "the way they would all look at her, at Anna K., resurrected from the Hades of motherhood."
Finally, exhibiting a gift even more crucial to a novelist working this terrain, Reyn gracefully expresses, in throwaway lines and longer musings, the tense psychology of a woman torn between romantic stability and adventure. There was, Anna K. thinks to herself, before the pressure builds in another direction, "no reason to deny the pleasure of certainty, of routine, a finale to those energy-consuming dramas of the single life. . . . How much armor can a single woman accumulate before she puts down her weapons?"
Those who treasure their Anna Karenina, with its parallel romances of Anna and Vronsky, and Levin and Kitty, its scores of walk-ons who affect their lives, will enjoy the resonances Reyn orchestrates with her own Alex and Anna, Lev and Katia, while still resisting ham-fisted parallelisms or didactic connecting of dots.
Those who haven't will find
What Happened to Anna K.
an exquisite contemporary love story on its own, a "Moscow on the East River" that explores issues of love and capitulation that transcend its particular ethnic milieu.
Whatever Happened to Anna K.
makes you think you want to change your life, there's a thick Russian novel I'd like to recommend.