This new release was one of the books I managed to grab on my last giant library haul trip before they shut down to the public (so like, two weeks ago or so?). I, like many other readers, thought this (the shelter in place/coronavirus distancing situation) was going to be a great time to read and am quickly discovering that the anxiety and lack of normality is actually making it harder for me to concentrate on reader than it usually is. Super sad. However, though it took me way longer than normal to get into this one, I have to say that once the hook finally caught, I was a goner. I read for like 4 hours straight to finish it up and ended up staying awake much past my normal (but like, what is normal, now?) bedtime.
This is basically a modern-day retelling of Anna Karenina. I read Anna Karenina years ago (I, unsurprisingly, thought it’d be fine to sign up for a grad level Russian lit class as an undergrad. It was not fine…but I have now read a lot of Tolstoy and I’m proud of that.) and it is absolutely by fav Tolstoy novel. So, it already had that going for it. But adding in the high Manhattan society adolescent scene that is the setting for this retelling and the entertainment and drama value just skyrocket! And a quick plot synopsis if you don’t know anything about Anna Karenina: a married woman embarks on a fantastic love affair that basically ends with her original life in shambles and causes a tragic ending, while all around her, friends and family members are simultaneously experiencing the joys and sorrows of love and heartbreak. I mean really, its classic literature soap opera (but side note: the historical and cultural setting is also quite important). In this retelling, Anna K has long been dating the star of old Greenwich society, but when she meets playboy Vronsky, who is smitten by Anna in a way he’s never been before, his attempts to win her over lead them both down a path of passionate love that neither has experienced before. Plus, fantastic side-plotlines (that legit held their own against the blinding spotlight that is Anna and Vronsky’s relationship) retold with Anna’s brother (who cheated on his girlfriend but wants her back) and their friend Dustin (a guy with his heart in the right place who’s shooting way out of league for his dream girl).
First of all, and most importantly, this book was just plain fun. Absolutely, dizzyingly entertaining. Lee’s writing is just right for this type of book: smart, quick and snarky in a way that keeps you enthralled and emotionally invested in the story while also sort of able to recognize how ridiculous parts of it are. The pacing is also fantastic, with short chapters, switching perspectives and spectacular romantic tension build-up that all make it almost impossible not to turn another page (which I clearly demonstrated). Honestly, it just feels like Lee was able to take the best parts of the original (I respect that this is arguable, but I’m not writing a dissertation, so I’m not here for the academic side of things), like the love and drama and relationships, and re-present it all in a modern way that’s less cumbersome and really just highlights those human aspects that make a story relatable. Plus, the change in age to a YA novel made me feel so much better cheering for the relationships that were truly about that rush of first love and real connection, because the characters were young enough to make those path switches without causing too much harm (which is very different in the original version, where all parties are adults and the stakes are objectively much higher). It was a freer setting to read in and, honestly, I challenge anyone to legitimately say that they don’t get swept away in the tidal wave of young and first love (and/or heartbreak) when reading…it’s the best! And this novel had it in spades.
Other things that I loved about this novel include: the cover (so fresh!), the fantastic and overall really positive sibling relationships throughout (I love a good healthy and supportive sibling relationship), the addition of some character diversity, and some of the extra modern-day additions, like addiction and sex tapes (I’m leaving how they feature vague on purpose to avoid spoilers), that really bring the story to the reader where we’re at.
Also, I want to just talk about the retelling aspect. For the majority of the novel, the storylines follow the original pretty closely, plot-wise, and I was really enjoying that but also (and if you’ve read it or seen the movie, you know what I mean) I can’t say I wasn’t really hoping for a different ending from the original. Well, I technically got what I asked for, though not at all the way I was hoping. It was still emotional, stunning, surprising…I cried and I gasped out loud and I was mad. But also, I really want to say that I loved it. I loved the twist on the original that Lee made, keeping the spirit of the ending but re-arranging it so that our heroine, our young Anna K could get a 21st century feminist makeover. It was a great way to close out a tumultuous, eye-opening, blindingly love-filled chapter of her life (a romantic coming of age) without any need to have her compromise or lose who she was. I mean, it was horrible and tragic but so was the original, and at least in this case, the girl has a chance to win (and by win, I mean find her second timeless love, hopefully in a healthier set of circumstances). Anyways, the point is, I am here for the way this retelling played out.
Bottom line, I just really needed this story in my life right now. I was completely captivated and that escape was exactly what I was looking for. This is classic literature meets Gossip Girl meets the Crazy Rich Asians series (I know, I have since seen that other people said this too, but I promise I made this note on my phone while reading before I saw any of that!) that works to perfection because of Lee’s fantastic writing. Loved this one!