PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn

Carlin Romano
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Reyn gracefully expresses, in throwaway lines and longer musings, the tense psychology of a woman torn between romantic stability and adventure.

What Happened to Anna K.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781416558934
Author: Irina Reyn
Price: $24.00
Length: 256
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-08

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, New York, with her parents as a child from Moscow. 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 March, which imagined a fuller life for the missing father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and Jon Clinch's provocative Finn, 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 "mamochki and "papochki, 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:

"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.

And, if 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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.