I’m late by 3 days, but I’m posting for the blog tour for Anna K by Jenny Lee.
Meet Anna K. At seventeen, she is at the top of Manhattan and Greenwich society (even if she prefers the company of her horses and dogs); she has the perfect (if perfectly boring) boyfriend; and she has always made her Korean-American father proud (even if he can be a bit controlling). Meanwhile, Anna’s brother, Steven, and his girlfriend, Lolly, are trying to weather a sexting scandal; Lolly’s little sister, Kimmie, is recalibrating after an injury derails her ice dancing career; and Steven’s best friend, Dustin, is madly (and one-sidedly) in love with Kimmie.
As her friends struggle with the pitfalls of teenage life, Anna always seems to sail gracefully above it all. That is, until the night she meets Alexi “Count” Vronsky. A notorious playboy, Alexi is everything Anna is not. But he has never been in love until he meets Anna, and maybe she hasn’t either. As Alexi and Anna are pulled irresistibly together, she has to decide how much of her life she is willing to let go to be with him. And when a shocking revelation threatens to shatter their relationship, she is forced to ask if she has ever known herself at all.
Dazzlingly opulent and emotionally riveting, Anna K is a brilliant reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s timeless love story, Anna Karenina—but above all, it is a novel about the dizzying, glorious, heart-stopping experience of first love and first heartbreak.
I have very mixed feelings about Anna K. It was hard for me to get into at first because of how removed the characters’ lives were from mine, with the vast majority of them being part of the literal 1%. I grew up comfortably middle class, but faced with this level of wealth, I felt like I was observing an alien culture. There is wild shit in a lot of contemporary YAs, but add in extreme wealth and you get next level wild shit. The high class setting also comes with an even more rigid set of social expectations and pressures than your average teen might be subject to.
It was also hard for me to get into the story toward the beginning because the characters felt a lot more shallow, and everything happening to them simply felt like petty drama. What the characters were calling love felt more like infatuation. And yeah, I get that this is a common experience for teens, confounding the two, but I wasn’t understanding even the source of the infatuation except the stereotypical teen hormones and encounters between people who conform to hegemonic beauty standards. Even as the story progressed, I still wasn’t convinced that the two main characters were really in love because I felt like the narrative placed so much emphasis on their physical/sexual attraction to each other over more substantial emotional bonding. I wasn’t invested in the main romance at all.
On the plus side, I got to experience the train wreck of this story with no expectations or prior knowledge since I have never read Anna Karenina, the original story this is a retelling of. So I was just popping my figurative popcorn watching shit hit the fan more times than should be possible in a single novel. Whether there was True Love or not between the leads, there was definitely a lot of teens making Truly Terrible Life Choices and facing the consequences, and that was a source of entertainment for me, somewhat.
The final third of book was probably where the story hit the hardest and I started to feel the story pull its own weight. And despite some of the petty drama aspects I alluded to, the book did also explore (to varying degrees) serious topics such as drug addiction, depression, grief, misogyny/slut-shaming, and there was even a bit of commentary race and class (though far less of it than I wished there had been, but maybe that’s just my ethnic studies background speaking).
My disappointment in the main couple aside, the supporting characters’ story arcs and relationship dynamics were comparatively more engaging and interesting to me, especially those of Dustin and Kimmie. Another point in this book’s favor: Anna, a teen girl, unapologetically owns her sexuality, is shown taking initiative in sex, and sex isn’t treated with kid gloves. I’m actually fairly surprised by how explicit some of the scenes were; it was not your usual figurative language-laden, fade to black kind of fare.
I guess if I had one more comment/critique to add, it’s that this book was overwhelmingly heteronormative (and completely cisnormative; there was no mention of trans people even existing). There were four named queer characters, but only one had a more important role in the story, two of them made zero actual appearances in the story, and one was just there to be a “gay BFF” (direct quote from the book) to a straight girl. There were a few unnamed queer characters mentioned once in passing, and they were literally referred to as “gays,” which, coming from an author who is as far as I know, straight, was rather off-putting to read. Moreover, the overarching framing of the narrative was completely focused on the m/f relationships and gender dynamics, so the commentary on patriarchy and misogyny lacked nuance.
In conclusion: I didn’t completely hate the story, but I ultimately didn’t love it either, though I wanted to because I had high hopes for it going in. It might just be a taste thing.
CWs/TWs: drugs (use/addiction/overdose), alcohol, depression, death (human and animal), infidelity, explicit sex, mentions of self-harm, suicidal ideation, misogyny (some challenged in-text, some not), racist microaggressions against Asian and mixed race people
About the Author:
Jenny Lee is a television writer and producer who has worked on BET’s Boomerang, IFC’s Brockmire, Freeform’s Young & Hungry, and the Disney Channel’s number-one-rated kids’ show, Shake It Up. Jenny is the author of four humor essay collections and two middle grade novels. Anna K: A Love Story is her debut YA novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 135-pound Newfoundland, Gemma (and yes, it’s a toss-up on who’s walking who every day). Instagram: @jennyleewrites