Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, is so famous that even people who haven’t read it know at least a little about the plot. Readers who pick up The Book of Anna, by Carmen Boullosa (and beautifully translated by Samantha Schnee), don’t have to have read Tolstoy’s novel in order to understand her take off on the classic book. This novel focuses on Anna’s legacy, in the form of her son, her daughter, and three symbolic objects that are all that remain of her belongings. Anna Karenina ended with one of the most famous conclusions in literary history; The Book of Anna is about her long shadow.
Sergei Karenin, when we meet him at the beginning of the novel, which opens in 1905, is in a tizzy. There’s really no other way to say it. Sergei has just received a “request” he can’t refuse from the tsar. The tsar wants the painting of Anna Karenina that was mentioned in Tolstoy’s novel. Since her death, Anna’s portrait has been in a crate, far from where Sergei can see it and be reminded of the way that Anna ruined his family. The tsar wants the portrait for the national gallery, where everyone can see it. Sergei feels humiliated by the mere mention of his mother.
Meanwhile, an anarchist named Clementine is attempting to cause trouble in St. Petersburg. Her only link to Anna Karenina is that she wears Anna’s only remaining dress. It was given away to sex workers by Vronsky’s mother as an act of revenge. Other than knowing the brother of the maid of Anya Karenina (Anna and Vronsky’s daughter), Clementine’s subplot is all about the lead up to Bloody Sunday from the rebels’ perspective. I enjoyed Clementine’s story a lot better than Sergei’s. Yes, I did choose to read a book that featured Anna’s well-heeled son, but how can Sergei’s neurosis compare to Clementine’s anarchic bombers?
I spent most of The Book of Anna waiting for the two plot lines to connect, but then Boullosa threw another curveball at me, in the form of a manuscript supposedly written by Anna Karenina. I tossed all of my expectations out the window at that point. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a pay off. The ending of this novel didn’t make sense to me. I felt like there was so much to work with here, that was I got was a muddle with really good writing.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.