Jane Austen can take a rest. It’s Tolstoy’s turn.
Bookshelves now groan, at least virtually, under the weight of contemporary young adult rewrites of Jane Austen novels, even in Asian settings. But Jenny Lee may be the first novelist to rework a classic Russian novel with Asian characters. Anna and her older brother, Steven, are ultra-rich half-Korean teens whose parents have homes in Manhattan, Connecticut, and Hawaii, among others. Steven has gone through most of the top private schools in the greater New York City area and is in the process of getting dumped by his girlfriend when the story opens. Anna is called from Connecticut, where she attends a top private school, to patch things up between Steven and his girlfriend, Lolly.
As the story progresses, those who have read Anna Karenina may recognize Anna and Steven, but also Lolly as a contemporary Dolly and her sister Kimmie as Tolstoy’s Kitty. While most of the characters’ given names are closely modeled after their Anna Karenina counterparts, Anna’s suitor Vronsky has the same surname as the original and his nickname is the Count.
The greater New York City setting is fun for a young adult book, as the teens go clubbing in Manhattan and attend horse events in suburban Connecticut. Lee’s adaptation is clever and follows the original story closely at times, such as when Anna arrives at New York’s Grand Central Station:
What Count Vronsky first notices about the exquisite girl were her eyes, dark deep pools that sparkled beneath incredibly long lashes. She looked like a perfect porcelain doll standing so straight and tall in her pale gray Max Mara cashmere coat. He also admired that she didn’t wear much makeup like most teenage girls. As he stood watching, Steven bear-hugged her. Ah, so this was his younger sister?
Compared to the Tolstoy original that takes place at the Moscow train station:
Her brilliant grey eyes, shadowed by thick lashes, gave her a friendly, attentive look, as though she were recognizing him, and then turned to the approaching crowd as if in search of someone. In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed animation when played over her face and flitted between her sparkling eyes and the slight smile curving her red lips.
But one need not have read Tolstoy’s novel to understand or enjoy Anna K. It’s a story most teens can relate to: the pressure to fit in and to figure out when to follow their friends and when to stand up for themselves. Anna, however, seems to have it all. She has been dating her Harvard freshman boyfriend for several years, she’s an accomplished equestrian, and is about to show her two Newfoundland dogs at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. She is so trusted by her parents that she lives alone in the family’s Greenwich, Connecticut home, along with a housekeeper, so she can go to school close to her horses and her large dogs.
Anna and Steven’s father favors Anna, which is unusual in traditional Korean culture. In a flashback to her childhood, Anna remembers her Korean grandmother pinching her arm when Anna disagrees that Korean boys are favored over girls. But the reader learns more about Jewish life cycle events like bat and bar mitzvot and the shiva ritual of mourning from the Kimmie, Lolly, and Dustin characters. Dustin and Anna’s stable hand, Murf, meanwhile, are African American.
Lee gives Anna more hope at the end of her book (there’s no jumping under the 4:15 to White Plains, for example) than Tolstoy gave Anna Karenina, yet Anna K is not without its heartbreaks and tragedies. And while Lee has an accurate pulse on teen issues, especially those in New York, the gratuitous drug abuse can seem distracting, particularly during the first half of the book. Steven, Lolly, and their wealthy friends go on wild drug binges with cocaine, LSD, mushrooms, Ecstasy, and prescription pills, yet the only characters that really suffer from drug abuse are those who are marginalized and low-income.
Nonetheless, Lee has written an entertaining novel in the tradition of Crazy Rich Asians (with a mostly white cast) for teens. While one doesn’t suppose that many Anna K readers will have read Anna Karenina, perhaps this new book will inspire some of them to check out the Russian classic. (Or at least watch the Keira Knightley film.)