'Anna K' Is a Modern Retelling of 'Anna Karenina'

The novel is being compared to Gossip Girl and Crazy Rich Asians, so naturally it's our March #ReadWithMC pick.

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Welcome to #ReadWithMC—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In March, we're reading Jenny Lee's highly-anticipated debut YA novel, Anna K (out March 3). The book, a modern retelling of Anna Karenina, has been compared to Gossip Girl and will be turned into a HBO Max series featuring a Korean-American lead. Read an exclusive excerpt, below, then find out how to participate in our book club here. (You really don't have to leave your couch!)

Steven was staring up at the arrivals and departures board in Grand Central when he found himself standing shoulder to shoulder next to Alexia V. (known around town by his nickname the Count, or just Vronsky), who was also scanning the board above them. “Hey man, what brings you here?”

Vronsky gave him a big grin. “Would you believe I’m here to pickup my mother? She’s recovering from a broken ankle and is still using a cane. She attended a dinner party at my uncle’s in Greenwich, gave her driver the night off, and is now taking the train back by herself. She didn’t ask me to pick her up, but why else would she have sent me her arrival time?”

Steven returned his smile and decided that on close inspection Count Vronsky was every bit as handsome as everyone said he was. As they were both newish to Collegiate and Steven was a senior, everything he knew about Vronsky was strictly based on reputation. “If I was a betting man, I’d wager there’s another reason. Gotta bank some ‘good-boy points’ for the future, perhaps? That’s what I do whenever I can. What choice do we have when blessed with formidable women for mothers?”

Vronsky roared with laughter in response, slapped Steven on the back, and then proceeded to neither confirm nor deny anything. Instead he answered a question with his own. “And you? What brings you out on a snowy evening without a proper overcoat?” Steven looked down and realized Vronsky spoke the truth. He had been so distracted trying to get Dustin out the door and not be late himself that he had left the house in only a Loro Piana cashmere cardigan and his black Burberry cashmere beanie.

“A beautiful girl,” Steven answered, but quickly realizing this was not the right time for him to be so cavalier, added, “My sister, Anna. She’s coming in from Greenwich, too.”

Vronsky frowned. “Did I know you had a sister?”

“Anna’s a junior at Greenwich Academy. She’s the equestrian of the family and can’t bear to be too far away from her precious horses, so she mostly lives at the Greenwich house. Plus, she has two giant dogs she’s obsessed with. She’s always saying it’s her duty as a mom to give her fur babies a proper backyard to romp in.”

“Gotta love the girls who love riding,” Vronsky said with a sly grin, then quickly added, “Horses.”

Ordinarily Steven would be all over Vronsky’s statement, piling on his own vulgar jokes, but since they were talking about his sister, he kept himself in check. “Maybe you know her boyfriend, Alexander W.?”

Now it was Vronsky’s turn to straighten up, even adding the flourish of tightening an imaginary tie. “No shit? Your sister is the gf of the Greenwich OG. Interesting.”

“Not really.” Honestly, if Steven never heard another word about Anna’s umchina boyfriend it’d be fine with him. “Umchina” was one of the few Korean words Steven had learned from his Korean grandmother. There’s no English translation, but it basically means the perfect son of your mother’s friend, the one you’re constantly compared to. For Steven, the Greenwich OG was his umchina because his mother couldn’t help but list off every single one of Alexander’s many accomplishments in Steven’s presence. She once even went so far as to say, “Greenwich is so fortunate to have someone like Alexander representing it.”

Alexander W. had been his sister’s boyfriend for the last three years, earning his nickname, the Greenwich OG, for being the only privileged white male in the country to have gotten into all eight Ivy League schools his senior year. He was old-money Connecticut from a good family, had published his first op-ed piece in The New York Times at age sixteen, was valedictorian at Brunswick, and spent two weeks of every summer teaching disadvantaged youths how to sail (which Steven found moronic, as if poor kids sat around wishing they could sail). He for sure would be the Democratic presidential nominee in another twenty years if the current president didn’t decimate the American democratic system for all eternity. Alexander was presently a freshman at Harvard University but traveled back to Greenwich often to be a devoted boyfriend to Anna. Only the formidable Greenwich OG could get away with being a college guy who still had a high school girlfriend.

Anna was seventeen and two years younger than Alexander, but she had always been quite poised for her age. The perfect couple’s “meet cute” happened at the White House Easter Egg Hunt when she was thirteen. Alexander was there because his dad was a big supporter of Obama, and she was there because at thirteen she played the violin in an award-winning string quartet, otherwise comprised of high school girls. If you believed the stories, it was said that when Alexander watched Anna play, he felt an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, even though he was certain he had never seen her before in his life. What he did know was that he no longer cared about helping little kids find Easter eggs. His only goal was to meet the beautiful girl who played the violin like she was sent down from the heavens to do so.

Alexander introduced himself to Anna at the dessert buffet and was so taken with her delicate beauty up close he dropped a piece of cherry pie on her white dress. Horrified over the mishap, he quickly arranged to have Anna borrow a dress from Sasha, President Obama’s younger daughter. (To this day, Anna is still friends with Sasha.) What they later figured out was that Alexander had seen Anna play the violin for his aunt’s second wedding at the Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club in Westport the previous summer. Utterly smitten, Alexander begged his dad and stepmother to invite Anna to fly home with them on their private plane instead of letting her take the train. His stepmother had never seen Alexander behave in such a way before, and in an effort to win favor with her husband’s only son, she called Anna’s mom and arranged the whole thing.

By the time Anna arrived home, she had the “promise” of her first boyfriend, since she wasn’t allowed to “officially” have a boyfriend until she turned fourteen. Alexander had no problem waiting and the two had been the perfect couple ever since. The long-term plan was marriage, of course, but the post–high school plan was that Anna would attend Harvard or Yale and Alexander would go to law school wherever she ended up.

Steven once asked Anna whether it was scary to have her entire life planned out at such a young age. “We live in America now, so it’s not like you gotta do the whole Korean arranged marriage for the good of the family status thing, you know?”

She just smiled at her brother’s sarcasm and told him, “Alexander is a good person. He needs me and I’m happy to be there for him.” Steven was quick to remind her that Alexander was not a dog and to ask her about her own needs, to which she simply replied that Alexander adored her, and she liked how easy their relationship was from the very start. She was relieved to not have to deal with the drama of dating, which she had little time or patience for. Alexander was everything a girl could want, plus it helped that her parents approved of their relationship. There were very few boys that their father would ever trust his precious daughter with; in fact, Alexander may be the only boy that fit the bill. In Korea, societal status was paramount, and Alexander’s father was the top of the Greenwich elite. It was this importance their parents placed on social standing that Steven disagreed with the most.

“Track twenty-seven,” Vronsky said, breaking Steven out of his thoughts.

“What did you say?” Steven asked.

“Their train, it’s arriving now.”

Steven nodded and hurried after Vronsky, for whom the crowd seemed to part, as he walked toward the escalators in his Brioni camel overcoat, his extra-long Tom Ford cashmere scarf dragging on the ground behind him.

Excerpted courtesy of Flatiron Books from ANNA K: A Love Story by Jenny Lee.

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Rachel Epstein

Rachel Epstein is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York City. Most recently, she was the Managing Editor at Coveteur, where she oversaw the site’s day-to-day editorial operations. Previously, she was an editor at Marie Claire, where she wrote and edited culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also launched and managed the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game or finding a new coffee shop.