What does Tolstoy’s 19th-century novel about the intricacies of Russian aristocracy and the meaning of love have to do with filthy rich Korean-American teenagers living in New York City’s Upper East Side? Jenny Lee’s “Anna K.” undertakes the ambitious project of translating one of literature’s greatest works into a young adult novel, exploring the intricacies of private-school royalty in the age of social media and scandal in the process. “Anna K.” follows the first half of its source material without deviation, making it an accessible introduction to the Russian classic for young readers. But the premise also creates limitations — and when Lee decides to reform the narrative, the novel starts to feel more like a CW teen soap-opera.
Lee’s narrative begins just as Tolstoy’s does, though instead of couple Stiva and Dolly fighting over infidelity, teenagers Lolly and Steven squabble over Steven's playboy tendencies following the discovery of another girl’s lewd text messages on his Apple Watch. The introduction of characters follows the classic novel perfectly, with every major plot point and event until Part 5 reframed through the lens of the modern world.
When Anna K. arrives in New York City to calm her brother’s girlfriend, Lee further reveals the extent of her adaptation. Her characters may be part of a ridiculously tradition-bound upper class society, but they are still teenagers, not married aristocrats, and their emotions are easily dismissed as superficial, hormonal ramblings. Lee’s construction of this insanely wealthy group of socialites, however, make their drama just as addicting as a Daily Mail gossip column.
Take, for example, Lee’s reworking of Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, the wealthy statesman and Anna’s husband in the original text. He becomes Alexander W., Anna K.’s perfect, dedicated boyfriend who supports her all the way from Harvard, where he strives towards even greater perfection. While a college-high school relationship is much less binding than an aristocratic marriage, the reputation-based society Lee creates allows her characters to explore the same questions of love and fidelity that Tolstoy’s did.
Anna K. is thrown into familiar turmoil as she begins to reflect on her “perfect” relationship, scolding herself for being bored but despising herself even more as she struggles with her feelings for Vronsky — Anna’s lover in the original. While the stakes may not be as high, Lee proves that these greater questions are universal, effectively framing them within trivial circumstances.
While some of the Russian aristocracy’s absurdity is well-preserved in Lee’s retelling, her contemporary setting lends itself to its own humor and pitfalls. Count Vronsky earns the title “Count” not from his heritage, but from the Manhattan society joke that upon entering a room, he could hardly “count” the number of “it” girls he’d slept with. The intensity of Anna’s infidelity is both magnified and lessened, as her public display of affection towards Vronsky manifests in grinding at a rave and messaging over Words with Friends. There is humor in the framework of the story itself, with an extreme “Gossip Girl” or “Crazy Rich Asians” feel evoked by the number of luxury brands and celebrity name-dropping.
Lee’s premise falls short, however, in its ending. Throughout the book, “Anna K.” manages to follow Tolstoy’s original novel well, from Vronsky’s horse-riding accident to Dustin (Levin) and Kimmie’s (Kitty) romance. However, given the logical limitations as well as the length of the YA-novel, Lee creates her own ending to the story, one completely diverged from the original. After following the original narrative so closely, Lee’s ending feels wrong and rushed, even if it is the only logical conclusion for the novel.
Further, there is no way for Lee to progress into Tolstoy’s discussions around parental happiness and marital strife, so her novel simply ends with teenage bliss. It feels odd to end one of the greatest epics of first love with something so trivial, but Lee is writing a young adult novel under certain parameters, so it is difficult to fault her too much.
Much of the fun in reading this novel comes from spotting the references, events, and thematic discussions of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” and enjoying the playful framework and ridiculous circumstances of the Greenwich and Manhattan elite. Lee’s work serves as an easy-to-read adaptation that will hopefully push its younger readers to take on the source material. Yet there’s always the wonder about what would have happened if Lee had continued adapting the original story, preserving the original fate of Anna K.
— Staff writer Hannah T. Chew can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Hannah T. Chew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.