Buzzfeed Recommends Part Eight: Anna K by Jenny Lee Spoiler-Free Review

T/W: slut shaming, revenge porn, drug use, addiction, racism, adultery

This is the eighth review of my ‘Buzzfeed Recommend’ series in which I read and review all the books Buzzfeed recommended in their article: ’15 Brand-New Young Adult Novels That Are Just So, So, Good’. You can read the summary for that here.

‘Anna K’ by Jenny Lee is a modern YA retelling of Anna Karenina set in modern day America (mainly New York). The book currently has an average rating of 3.65 on Goodreads, and I rated it 4 stars.

The story follows Anna K, at seventeen she’s already managed to climb to the top of Manhattan’s teenage elite and has the boyfriend everyone wants, Alexander W – her life is perfect, if only she didn’t enjoy the company of her dogs and horses more than the children of the social elite. Everyone else’s lives crash around her perfect one: her brother, Steven, and his girlfriend, Lolly, are trying to work their way through a sexting scandal, Kimmi, Lolly’s little sister, is trying to deal with a career-ending injury and Dustin, her brother’s oldest friend, secretly loves Kimmie. Yet everything changes when she meets Alexia at Grand Central Station, a notorious playboy that catches her eyes and she must ask how much of her life is she willing to give up for this one boy?

“Dustin shook his head and sighed. People were starving, wars were being fought all over the world, so many people were suffering, and yet here was an eighteen-year-old dropping two Gs on some bullshit like it was nothing. It didn’t seem right that some people had so much when others had so little. He knew he shouldn’t go on principle, but when it came to Kimmie”

‘Anna K’ wasn’t a book I expected to love or to really enjoy, but somehow this book defied all my expectations and known tastes to ensure I fell in love with the writing, story and characters. It was a fun novel full of interesting characters and a world full of teenage drama that never felt tired but always entertaining.

Firstly, I should mention that I have never read ‘Anna Karenina’, but I don’t think that matters. I didn’t struggle to follow this retelling even though I didn’t know the original source material, and at no point did I feel as if I should have read the original source material before this retelling – which is often how retellings make me feel. So whilst I can’t attest as to whether or not you would enjoy this if you love ‘Anna Karenina’, I can claim it is possible to like this without reading the original.

For a book that claims to follow Anna and her story, it spends an extraordinary amount of time exploring the thoughts and feelings of other characters including: Kimmie, Dustin, Lolly, Steven, Alexander and Alexia. For a book so full of characters and their intense narratives, Lee somehow expertly ensures everyone feels fascinating and unique, and I found myself captivated by them and their stories, regardless if they were truly ‘good’ or not. Whilst some of the characters could feel a little bit stereotypical at times and more flat than round, they didn’t irk me or take anything away, rather they made the story more entertaining and it felt like reading a good teenage drama show (better than ‘Riverdale’ and ‘Gossip Girl’ I promise).

As well as the characters being all interesting or at the very least entertaining, I found they were accurate portrayals of modern teenagers as well. Whilst they are rich and extremely privileged, and therefore not representative of the average teenager, they behave as teenagers with access to excessive wealth and privilege would. This means that at no point do you have to suspend your belief as a reader to follow the story, or even to bear the events taking place, rather you can turn page after page anxiously awaiting to see where the wealth and extravagance takes you.

The romance between characters was also handled with great care, and it was clear Lee drew on numerous inspirations to write the different relationships, as whilst there were many different romantic relationships taking place between the teenage characters each felt defined and their own. Lee also managed to capture the essence of teenage relationship well: the passion and the desire that is quick, and the love that is fierce, strong and terrifying many young people feel; Lee did this in a way that it was clear she wasn’t condoning their actions but also didn’t patronise these feelings either. Despite the fact the characters are teenagers you will find yourself rooting for certain relationships and eagerly reading on to find out where they go – and that in itself is a talent to manage.

I enjoyed the plot of this book, however not everyone will. It is based largely in relationships and teen drama, so if you’re not a fan of these concepts you will unlikely be a fan of this retelling. However, the plot also delved into deeper issues than just ‘petty teenage drama’, and explores depression and loss heavily also. It is at times fun, light, breezy and entertaining, whilst at others dark, heavy and thoughtful – and I believe it strikes a brilliant balance between the two concepts.

Whilst I won’t explore any of the trigger warnings mentioned at the start of this post in great detail, I do believe it is important to note that these things do occur in the narrative and they are rarely criticised by the narrative or characters. However, I do believe they are handled well and they don’t seem to take place to ‘dramatise’ the book or retelling, but rather everything that happens are events and decisions made that can realistically take place in teenager’s lives, and the emotions surrounding these ‘difficult’ events are represented and explored well.

Overall, this was a fantastic read and one I readily recommend to anyone looking for a good retelling or an entertaining YA read that isn’t shallow. It is not for everyone due to the issues I’ve outlined, but I believe it is still worthy of our attention and consideration as a guide in moving forward with classic retellings in the YA literature landscape.

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