Irina Reyn's debut novel, What Happened to Anna K., transports Anna Karenina to Queens, N.Y., where she struggles with familiar issues of identity, social rules, gender and loyalty a century later and a continent away.
Where did you get the idea to reimagine Anna Karenina?
I took a course on the book in graduate school, so I read it over and over again for several months. It occurred to me that I was reading it anew: Anna seemed less a victim of her time period, more like she was bent on leaving behind the life she had created to chase something that was more of a romantic illusion. In Tolstoy's book she's always reading, so the narrative of fiction influences the way she sees her own life. I identified as an immigrant and also as a bookworm. I also felt that books were shaping my life and feeling that life could go along a narrative arc, which of course it can't.
Did you plot out the way significant events from Tolstoy would translate into a modern setting?
I did not even look at the book again. I used memories of the scenes that resonated with me, like the scene when Vronsky and Anna meet, from Kitty's point of view, when she sees Anna take her man. The way that way scene unfolds is mesmerizing.
Although women are not in the same situation as they were in the 19th century, you see a parallel between their role in Anna's world and Anna K.'s world?
It's definitely there, absolutely. Anna K. is a Russian immigrant with certain notions of femininity and aging. She's very much aware that a lot of her currency comes from her beauty and her youth. Once that starts fraying a little bit, she begins to unravel. And Anna K.'s as much of an American as a Russian. The things she experiences in the U.S. underwrite her fears.
How much of Anna K.'s world of Russian and Bukharan Jewish immigrants is informed by your own experience?
I was very much interested in setting Anna K. in the place where I grew up, the Rego Park section of Queens. The Russian immigrants are more secular than the Bukharans, whose traditions are so strong. So it's heightening the issues of identity and culture and displacement. It was fascinating for me to look at, having had the experience of growing up among Bukharan Jews, and I hope I did some justice.
Tolstoy said we're not supposed to pity Anna by the end, but you can't help sympathizing with her.
Tolstoy wanted to condemn her himself, but he couldn't do it because he empathized with her so much. I wanted to show the complex sides of her personality.