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'Anna K.,' From Russia To Queens — With Love

Like Hamlet or Oedipus, the tragedy of Anna Karenina is part of our literary bedrock. What Happened To Anna K., Irina Reyn's fresh retelling of Tolstoy's 1877 masterpiece, is so absorbing it almost makes you forget how the story ends.

Reyn's Anna K. is a middle-aged beauty ensnared in the Russian enclave of contemporary Queens, N.Y. Oddly dreamy and bookish, our modern heroine is a starry-eyed romantic hoping vaguely for Heathcliff or Darcy to come along. Instead, she marries Alex K., a chilly but prominent Russian businessman. They have a son, Serge, and live uneventfully on the Upper East Side until Anna begins a breathless fling with her cousin Katia's boyfriend, David, an adjunct professor and aspiring novelist.

Back in Queens, awkward pharmacist Lev broods over his love for Katia and cherishes his secret trips to the Angelika to see classic French cinema. After Anna leaves Alex for David, she begins her downward spiral, and the story hurtles to its inevitable conclusion.

Along the way, there are ingenious transpositions to a modern setting: The ballroom where Tolstoy's Anna meets her lover becomes a Christmas party in a Brighton Beach restaurant. Vronsky's famous steeplechase is transformed to the New York City marathon. Inside jokes abound, as Reyn cleverly unravels the familiar signposts of the story. There's something cheeky about having her Anna harbor the peculiar fantasy of being the lead character in someone's novel, and in steering Lev from farming to pharma.

But the book doesn't lean on Leo T. for its psychology. Changing social mores have rendered the "fallen woman" blessedly outdated; this Anna K.'s distinctly modern self-absorption is what causes her tailspin.

Although it's frustrating to watch a 21st century Anna abandon her child rather than, say, get a job to support him, Reyn makes her heroine a figure contemporary readers can empathize with: an intelligent spirit who makes a desperate grasp at authenticity and meaning. It's a measure of the author's ingenuity that her Anna is unhappy in a way that is all her own.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.