'What Happened to Anna K' by Irina Reyn

Channeling Leo Tolstoy, novelist finds tragic romance

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Anyone who has seen even one episode of "American Idol" knows it's risky to imitate a master; if you don't have Mariah Carey's voice, don't attempt one of her songs.

And so it seems a bold move for Irina Reyn to take on Russian master Tolstoy's 19th-century classic, "Anna Karenina," one of the greatest novels ever written but also a relatively recent Oprah Book Club selection. People have read it.


By Irina Reyn
Touchstone ($24)


In her treatment, Reyn plays with the plotlines and preoccupations of her literary ancestor, setting her story in a community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union living in the Rego Park region of Queens. Even within this small cultural slice, there are sub-divisions between the more orthodox Bukharian Jews from Uzbekistan and the more secular, cynical post-Soviet Russians.

Reyn's update, like the century she writes in, is faster, busier, more stylish, more self-conscious: it is "Sex and the City" meets "Fiddler on the Roof."

Reyn, who teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh, brilliantly explores the same territory -- the disputed, often volatile regions between parents and children, husbands and wives, Romantics and, well, everyone else.

As in Tolstoy's novel, Reyn tells two stories, one of Anna Roitman, who's about to marry Alex K., and the other, Lev Gavrilov, who has for years been quietly in love with Anna's cousin, Katia.

Anna has always been the kind of woman men stare at, with white skin, mysterious green eyes, a tumble of dangerous dark curls. She "radiates lushness" and knows it.

When the novel begins, Anna is 36, the veteran of a variety of tortured love affairs. For her parents it's time to marry, already. Even Anna thinks she should get on with what's expected.

So she is marrying Alex K., a man 16 years older, a successful Russian immigrant who will establish her on the upper East Side in the style in which everyone, including she, thinks should make her happy.

But Anna has her other moments, when "the Russian soul had come to claim her, extinguishing all that was sanguine and buoyant, all that was American inside her, leaving only the Siberian Steppes, the crust of black bread, the acerbic aftertaste of marinated herring, the eternal, bleak winter."

A veteran of 14 readings of "Wuthering Heights," Anna is a Romantic with a capital R. She longs more for intensity than for singing birds. When she encounters the hoped-for fiance of Katia, a young writer with his own literary illusions, Anna thinks she has met a soulmate. Even without reading Tolstoy's novel, we know where a romantic's heart wants to go, and Anna goes there.

Reyn's other storyline follows Gavrilov, whose inner life is fed by movies, especially French films. He may be a strict Bukharian Jew working as a pharmacist in Queens, but in his mind he channels Jean-Paul Belmondo, sitting in his convertible, a cigarette dangling casually from his hand.

Like Anna, he follows his heart's desire, wins Katia, and then must work out what happens when he actually gets what he thinks he wants.

The big question at the heart of Tolstoy's novel is: What makes us happy? And in his expansive way, he walks us through possible answers -- passion, family life, politics, farming.

In her reformulated story, Reyn explores the intense conflicts between two visions of life, the bourgeois, unexamined life of ordinary marriage and family, vs. a version of life desired by those whose inner lives were formed by art, movies, books. Must one always settle in order to settle down?

Anna, with both a child and a lover, wonders: "Is there room for the comfort of routine and the wild beating of the heart to co-exist in a single life?"

In Tolstoy's time and place, there wasn't. Cultural forces came down hard on his Anna K. In updating this story, Reyn proves that this question still matters, to both women and men, and that it makes for fascinating, compelling fiction.

Sherri Hallgren teaches English at Shady Side Academy Senior School.


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