Written by Monica Haynes
It’s a quiet fall evening as a writer sits on her sofa, a laptop perched atop her knees. She is working on her first novel, and she usually writes for several hours every day. Now, with nearly 100 pages written, she senses an intruder. It’s the mysterious Anna Karenina, the aristocratic figure from the enduring Russian classic. Rather than flee, the writer is still, letting Anna push her way into the work in progress.
When she’s done with the novel three years later, Irina Reyn (A&S ’01) has placed Anna at the center of her tale, which looks at the pressures of approaching middle age and how women cope with the renewed expectations they have for their lives. The result is What Happened to Anna K. (Touchstone), a modern version of the timeless Leo Tolstoy saga of romance gone bad.
Set in the Russian immigrant neighborhood of Rego Park in Queens, N.Y., the book has earned glowing reviews and been described as Sex and the City meets Fiddler on the Roof. After a number of tortured love affairs, 36-year-old Anna takes the conventional route—marriage, and then a child. Eventually, though, she follows her heart, a path that does not lead to happily ever after. While the novel’s setting may reflect Old World ways in a Russian immigrant neighborhood, the author says that the questions Anna grapples with are universal and 21st century.
Reyn—who is a Pitt English professor—knows both worlds firsthand. She was born in Moscow and immigrated to Brooklyn with her parents in 1981, when she was 7. Two years ago, she returned to Russia for the first time. It was a fascinating but emotional journey, especially for her parents, she says. She detailed aspects of the experience in a 2008 article for Town & Country Travel. In addition to earning degrees at Rutgers University and Bennington College, she received a Pitt master’s degree in Slavic languages and literature.
While Anna K. is Reyn’s first novel, her fiction and essays appear in anthologies, including Not Like I’m Jealous or Anything: The Jealousy Book; Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation Immigrant Women; and A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection. She has reviewed books for major American daily newspapers and is the editor of the nonfiction anthology Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State. She recently was awarded the prestigious Goldberg Prize for emerging Jewish writers.
“I was raised on 19th-century British literature—George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Dickens,” Reyn says. She also developed a taste for more modern authors like Virginia Woolf and, later, Salman Rushdie and Milan Kundera. Multicultural authors like Richard Rodriguez and Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat, among others, helped her find her voice. “Those were writers who were really influential in getting me to start writing myself,” she says.
Those were writers who taught her to welcome and nourish the characters that arrive uninvited in the quiet hours of the night.