Blog Tour + Review: Anna K.: A Love Story

3.01.2020


Thank you to Flatiron Books at Macmillan Publishers for inviting me to participate in the Anna K blog tour! I received an advanced reader copy for review. Receiving this galley does not impact my opinion of the book.
"Every happy teenage girl is the same, while every unhappy teenage girl is miserable in her own special way."

In this modern-day retelling of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Anna K. grapples with living defined by her parents and society or choosing her own, flawed path. At 17, Anna K. has already secured a relationship with the seemingly-perfect Harvard student and "Greenwich OG", Alexander, that her community believes will end in marriage. But, an unexpected encounter and later affair with Alexia "Count" Vronsky, drives her to question whether she feels fulfilled in her relationship with Alexander and with life. In Anna's social circle conflict and romance also abound. Steven, Anna's older brother, cheats on his girlfriend Lolly; Kimmie, Lolly's younger sister, wrestles with her love for Vronsky and her personal identity after an injury upended her ice-skating career; Dustin, Steven's tutor, wonders how he could win the favor of one of the elite girls. When Anna's affair, scandals, and tragedy shock her community, Anna and her friends challenge their values and what love means to them.

Anna K.'s greatest strength lies in how Lee weaves her characters' circumstances to explore the intersections of wealth, gender,  and race in society today. The teens in Anna K are filthy rich. Their parents' wealth allows them access to the best schools, clothing brands, parties, and drugs. Lee reinforces the opulence with regular references to Gucci, luxury cars, and lavish gifts so expensive and unnecessary that they seem to come from another world. Sometimes, the wealth is exciting: in this world of elite teenagers, the only questions that matter are superficial: who can deliver the most elaborate Valentine's gift, throw the best parties, or create the most scandal? Other times, when juxtaposed against Dustin's struggles and reminders of the world outside, the luxury is sickening and wasteful. But even Dustin, the least wealthy of the pack and a public school student, attends Stuyvesant, one of the most elite public high schools in New York City.

Anna K.'s glimpse into the upper echelons of society provides an interesting backdrop to examine the role of sexism in both Korean communities and society as a whole. I took a particular interest in this criticism because of my background: my own mother is Korean, and I recently researched gender equality in South Korea for a South Korean Women's Presidential Advisory Board committee I participated in for a Model United Nations (MUN) conference.

As I read Anna K., I was reminded of the cultural barriers my MUN committee faced to pass reforms and the remnants of a patriarchal society that today constrain female citizens in Korea. Anna, though intelligent and regarded as an "obedient" Korean daughter before her affair, receives different treatment than her older brother Steven, who regularly overspends and skips class but remains the respected male son and future leader of the family.  Their parents demand respect for this family structure: their father issues commands that all follow without question, and their mother prioritizes maintaining the perfect family image over personal relationships with her children. Both Anna and Steven have affairs, but Steven can recover and, with Anna's help, even retain his relationship, while Anna faces parental disapproval, objectification, and societal rejection. Both of Anna and Steven's parents also engage in infidelity, but face different standards.

"It was easy for him to say, but not as easy for him to believe. Steven wished his mother would just confront her husband about his betrayals, without telling him of her own. Steven’s father’s pride was fierce, and his Korean heritage was deeply ingrained" (371).

Lee's commentary, although sometimes a bit heavy-handed, reveals how flawed cultural norms that treat women differently from men persist in Korean families and society in general.

Anna K. also illuminates how issues of wealth, race, and gender affect teenagers in particular. For many young adults, high school can be insulating, but also a time of self-discovery. Even ensconced in wealth, Anna and her friends wrestle with high school politics and determining their own identities distinct from their parents'. Kimmie, for example, recognizes how shallow her interactions with other wealthy teens had been after she seeks professional treatment for depression. Although Anna knows having an affair is morally wrong, her romance with Vronsky allows her to understand that she deserves to control her own love and happiness.

At times, Lee's portrayal of teenagers feels a bit out of touch and hinders her commentary. The characters and narration speak in hashtags and acronyms that create the impression of an adult trying to sound like a teenager.

"Nearly everyone in this bunch had cheated on their bfs or gfs before" (258).
"Damn, you can do two classes in a row? Hashtag ballerbitch" (168).  

Throughout the novel, the teens also refer to Valentine's Day almost exclusively as "V-Day". Similarly, Alexander's nickname, the "Greenwich OG", or original gangster, seems like an appeal to modern teens that falls flat. I'll admit to my bias here, but the last time I heard the term "OG" used widely was in 2014 or 2015-- when I was in middle school, one of my friends' nicknames was "OG Joe". The unnatural dialogue tries to emulate how teenagers speak but comes off as awkward and unacquainted with modern YA trends.

Still, Anna K. undeniably presents a coming-of-age story that will intrigue both teen fans of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and readers unfamiliar with the original story. Through challenges and tragedy, an imperfect heroine learns that she has power over her own body and her own choices, good and bad.

- ★★★ -

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

22 comments :

  1. Fantastic review! It looks like the author offers great insight.

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  2. This looks like one I'd enjoy! Great review!

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  3. I saw one of my favourite celebrities tweet about this book, and I got really excited about it! Tbh I know very little about Anna Karenina, but I am always happy to read a retelling. Although, I also agree that it is super annoying when authors write teenagers to speak constantly in text language. No teenagers I know talk or even text that way.

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    1. Yes! Text-speak is starting to become one of my biggest pet peeves in YA books. When it's mixed into teen dialogue it sounds unnatural, and when it's presented as texts from the characters the abbreviations are too often way overdone ("h3ll0"-type mixes that do not imitate natural texting *at all*).

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  4. I never read Anna Karenina, but nice to hear this was a decent coming of age story with hint of AK. Fab review!

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  5. I'm always curious by retelling and I can say that it's the first time I hear about this one

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  6. I've seen this one around quite a bit on Instagram and the synopsis sounded wonderful but hindered by the author trying to make her characters relatable and sounded a little forced. I can't remember anyone using the term original gangster. I like that it explores culture and how the other half live, reminding me a little of Crazy Rich Asians and Frankly in Love. Still interested to give this one a read. Brilliant review Claire, really enjoyed it.

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    1. Thank you! Yeah, I was a bit put off by how the book portrayed the way teenagers speak in general. Anna K's biggest strength by far, though, is how it layers multiple areas of commentary, and I think that really is what makes it worth a read. I've heard a lot of praise for Frankly in Love, so I may need to read that soon!

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  7. I loved the original story, so this version definitely appeals to me! That's too bad that her writing of teens felt a bit out of touch though--I think that would be extremely challenging, but pretty essential for a book like this one that has a classic at its roots. I still may have to give it a try though (and since I'm no longer a teen maybe I wouldn't notice that as much, ha!)

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    1. Haha, I would recommend giving it a try! The author includes a lot of nods to the original story from the start with similarly named characters and even the reference in the first sentence I quoted above.

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  8. It's always tough when the language feels forced or out of place. It's one of the things that bothered me about Frankly in Love -- the conversations didn't feel realistic. The main character would say things that made no sense, and felt like he was trying too hard to be cool? IDK. I've seen this book around, but didn't think it would be a good fit. After reading your review, I think I made the right call. <3

    Lindsi @ Do You Dog-ear? 💬

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    1. Thanks for stopping by Lindsi! I've heard a lot of praise for Frankly in Love, so it's disappointing to hear that it fell into unnatural dialogue/interactions for its teenage characters.

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  9. Wonderful review! I have this one on my shelf and am looking forward to reading it. It sounds like it was pretty good despite a few issues.

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  10. Great review!

    (wwww.evelynreads.com)

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