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UPDATED 08/25/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/25/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT

A Novel Take on Tolstoy

What Happened to Anna K.

by Irina Reyn |

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With a light-but-sure touch in her debut novel, Reyn takes Tolstoy's Anna Karenina from 19th-century Russia to 21st-century Rego Park, a gossipy immigrant neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., where Russian Jewish relatives "internally flambéed on vodka" grill singletons at holiday gatherings. It's easy to see why Reyn's indelible heroine, Anna Roitman—here, a bookish beauty well past 30 with a placeholder job in publishing—accepts courtly but dull Alexi K. after he bribes a chef to hide a ring in her chocolate soufflé. And it's just as easy to empathize when Anna leaves him later; aside from serving as cheeky counterparts to Tolstoy's cast, Reyn's characters have vivid lives of their own. An expatriate born in Moscow, the author brings a spot-on sense of detail and sly humor to her work; for instance, her description of Slavic traits, as listed by Anna, include "Suspicion of Positive Sentiments" and "Indifference to the Enjoyment of Others" (as in, loudly discussing "a friend's abortion during a Met performance"). Literate and fun, What Happened to Anna K. is an uncommonly ambitious book and one of the year's most amusing reads—even if the words "Russian novel" leave you cold.

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