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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 4/13/2009

Dave Beck
04/13/2009

The spirit of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" hovers over Irina Reyn's 21st century novel set in the borough of Queens. "What Happened to Anna K" is one of this week's books recommended by Nancy Pearl. She spoke with KUOW's Dave Beck.

I am always so pleased when I discover a first novel that I love and want to share with others. It reaffirms my faith that it's still possible to find books that offer me insight, knowledge and pleasure in a voice I've never heard before (and helps me get through the occasional dry spells that are an inevitable part of the reading life). Irina Reyn's What Happened to Anna K (Touchstone, 2008) was such a book for me. Even in the 21st century, in Anna K's close–knit Russian–Jewish community in Rego Park, Queens, women's roles are tightly constricted — the goal is to marry well (arranged marriages are common), follow the biblical commandments and dictates of the group's rabbi, and raise children to carry on the tradition. When Anna K leaves her financially successful older husband and young son because she's fallen hopelessly and helplessly in love with a younger man (a wannabe writer who happens to be her naïve and innocent cousin Katia's boyfriend), the shock waves reverberate throughout the insular community. So what finally happens to Anna K? Here's a hint: Reyn has ingeniously reinvented Leo Tolstoy's tragically selfish eponymous heroine, Anna Karenina, moving her more than a century and many time zones and continents away from her native Russia, but maintaining the outlines of Tolstoy's plot. (Though it's certainly not necessary to have read Tolstoy's novel in order to enjoy Reyn's.) The pleasures of Reyn's novel are to be found both in her clear–eyed depiction of the tensions between self and society, as well as in the descriptions of the Bukharian–Jewish émigré community where Anna lives, and whose conventions she both flouts and flaunts. I had never heard of Bukharian Jews before I read What Happened to Anna K, and I spent a lot of time when I finished it looking up information on their fascinating history. I also went out and bought the highly regarded new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" to read.

Deborah Weisgall brings two women into sharp focus in her novel The World Before Her (Houghton, 2008). One of the women, Caroline Spingold, a 33 year old American sculptor, is fictional. The other, 61 year old Marian Evans, is the very real 19th century English novelist, better known by her pen name, George Eliot. Alternating chapters, most set in Venice, move from 1880 (Marian's tale) to 1980 (Caroline's story) and back again. As with most novels structured in this fashion (remember A. S. Byatt's "Possession"?), readers may come to prefer spending time with one character over the other. That was the case for me, and my favorite (history buff that I am) sections were those about Marian Evans. Although I had been familiar with the outlines of Evans' life, I didn't know many of the specific details that Weisgall weaves into this account. Marian lived with — and loved — George Lewes for a quarter of a century. Although they never married, since he who was unwilling, or unable, to divorce his philandering wife, their friends (and even his children) never considered them anything but a devoted couple. Now Lewes is dead, and Marian, heartbroken, turns to the worshipful and adoring John Cross, two decades her junior, and agrees to marry him, in the hope of obtaining the social and personal benefits that go along with a legal relationship. They are in Venice for their honeymoon when Marian begins to realize that she may have made a grave mistake in thinking that marriage to John would give her the sort of happiness she gave her character Dorothea Brooke, in "Middlemarch." In 1980, Caroline is unwillingly accompanying her wealthy (two decades) older husband on a business trip to Venice, although it's the last place she wants to be. Just before her father left her and her mother for another woman, the family had spent a glorious summer there, and she has never wanted to return. As Caroline and Marian are each forced to confront issues of identity, love, art and marriage, the reader comes to realize how each women's life, seemingly so different in fact has many parallels to the other's, in ways both large and small. (And, if you enjoy this book as much as I did, I'm sure you'll want to go back and read — or reread — George Eliot's writings. Although "Silas Marner" is the one most often used for English class assignments, probably because it's the shortest, I would suggest "Daniel Deronda" or "Middlemarch" instead.)

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