Anna K. by Jenny Lee – ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Overall, probably kind of dense for readers coming into this with no expectations from the original. Enough reflection of the original yet with its own surprises to interest those familiar with the original. And for both, moments where the old Russian style and internet era style will clash in a really strange way.
For an adaptation from an uncommon source for the genre, for a rich-and-famous-teen story, for a lot of interpersonal intrigue and drama sprinkled with plenty of sex, drugs, and partying.
Meet Anna K. At seventeen, she is at the top of Manhattan and Greenwich society. She has the perfect (if perfectly boring) boyfriend, Alexander W. Meanwhile, Anna’s brother, Steven, and his girlfriend, Lolly, are trying to weather an sexting scandal; Lolly’s little sister, Kimmie, is struggling to recalibrate to normal life 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 ordinary teenage life, Anna always seems to be able to sail gracefully above it all. That is…until the night she meets Alexia “Count” Vronsky at Grand Central. A notorious playboy who has bounced around boarding schools and who lives for his own pleasure, Alexia is everything Anna is not. But he has never been in love until he meets Anna, and maybe she hasn’t, either. As Alexia and Anna are pulled irresistibly together, she has to decide how much of her life she is willing to let go for the chance to be with him. And when a shocking revelation threatens to shatter their relationship, she is forced to question if she has ever known herself at all.
The experience for those who are coming into this as its own standalone story with no preconceived ideas of what will happen is different than those who have read the original. Be aware that this is a lot more serious and formal in tone than most YA novels, which is due to Lee’s success in imitating the reserved Russian mindset and style of the original. While I plowed through this, other friends said it took them weeks to get through because of how slow and dense it felt at times. The overall effect is an unprecedented blend of modern and classic tones.
The primary hurdle to this blend is when they clash in a quite jarring way. For example, the sentence “Perhaps [she] was rueful over her lost opportunity with [him], who wasn’t as babe-a-licious as [the other guy] but was vastly superior in intellect and character.” (Edited to keep it vague). The term “babealicious” set up against “vastly superior in intellect and character” is extremely weird, posing the character thinking it simultaneously as a serious posh old lady and a millennial pop-culture fanatic. It gets really awkward at times, and the tone is pretty inconsistent. Alternatively (and as above, sometimes simultaneously) aggressively young and weirdly old in their mindset, these teenagers often don’t read as teenagers and makes it hard to classify this as a young adult genre.
The characters all live quite lavishly, which is where all the comparisons to Gossip Girl are coming from. I imagine the HBO series will be pretty similar in style. Even with that, they retain their complexity, allowing you to see the redeeming and condemning sides of each person. Dustin (Levin) is the one who will be most relatable for most readers, in terms of lifestyle. That said, each character has similar fears and challenges as anyone reading it might.
Quick FYI – the fact that Anna and Steven are Korean came into play a few times, but more in their personal observations. It was an aspect that I kept forgetting until they deliberately called it out again, so don’t expect a lot of Korean culture embedded into this — mostly just a few references to the family expectations in Korean culture.