Perfect for fans of “Crazy Rich Asians” and not just because both books feature attractive young Asian people with too much money.
I know it’s unpopular to pitch new things––books, movies, TV shows, etc––relative to how it’s alike to other already popular things. It’s not fair to say that every new magical book series for kids is the “next Harry Potter” when really the only thing in common is some magic wands. I get that. However. Jenny Lee’s YA debut book, Anna K really is the next Crazy Rich Asians (but teenagers).
I’m sorry, but that’s truly the best review I can come up with in a pinch. Calling Anna K the YA Crazy Rich Asians isn’t an insult nor a compliment. In fact I think Lee did a number of things better than Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan, but let’s just focus on Anna K. Jenny Lee’s YA debut is a retelling of the Russian classic novel Anna Karenina, almost painfully up-to-date bordering on Cool Mom. In 2019, Anna is the seventeen-year-old rich kid royalty of the Northeast bourgeois. The cool kid cabal also includes her older brother Stephen, his girlfriend Lolly, her little sister Kimmie, Stephen’s best friend Dustin, and the ultimate It-Boy, Alexei “Count” Vronsky. A few more teens round out the cast for a full social circle, dealing in drugs, alcohol, gossip, sex, and parties. The tag for the book is pitched “a love story” as it follows the tumults of the group’s first loves, heartbreaks, times, and tragedies.
Every happy teenage girl is the same, while every unhappy teenage girl is miserable in her own special way.
I’m not at all familiar with the Leo Tolstoy classic so I’m not sure if Anna Karenina could be described as fun, but reading Anna K sure was. The pacing carried along swiftly enough, the cast of character view points balanced out, and I definitely got invested in the story’s end. I wasn’t here to challenge class, expectations of women’s role in high society, or even question the mind-boggling privilege of a bunch of Manhattan teens. I just opened the book and turned the pages. The back of the book also brags that it’s already in development for an HBO Max TV show and it makes perfect sense because it reads like an edgy CW teen drama. Lee’s word choice was much more updated since 1800s translated Russian, dropping brands, celebrities, and internet slang like she has something to prove: “The whole thing was a fucking disaster. Lolly found out her boyfriend was cheating on her while she was getting his Apple Watch outfitted with a new wristband at the Hermès store on Madison Avenue.” That’s how the book starts out.
The tone and language don’t get more complicated than that, which made for easy “beach” reading but sometimes left me cringing. Gen Z doesn’t really talk like that, does it? Some of her descriptions seemed a little borderline stereotypical and staid: “(Anna) looked like a perfect porcelain doll…” along with other more eyebrow raising lines: “a perfect blend of Eurasian beauty: almond eyes and sleek shiny dark hair combined with high cheekbones and a perfect WASP-y ski-slope nose.” I might be wrong, but if Lee wasn’t Korean American, I don’t think she’d be able to get away with that. And some of the mannerisms of the J-14 social elite sounded campy: “DandyZ made a kitten claw and growled a little rowr Vronsky’s way.” As I read, I was questioning if Anna K was satire or not, and hoping that the Edge it craved was some sort of millennial postmodern self-awareness and not earnest, genuine language.
Briefly going back to mentioning the Korean American roots of Anna K, this is not the book to look to for any sort of thought provoking representation. It’s diverse and inclusive, sure, there are black characters, queer characters, and the K family are half white, half Korean. And for sure any POC writer has the right to tell whatever story they want with whatever characters without making the whole thing about identity. However, the few mentions of the K family’s heritage also felt flat and on the line of being questionable. Their father is the son of Korean immigrants, and described as proud and being too strict with Stephen because he’s the only son “which in Korean culture meant that the responsibility to step up and take care of the family would fall on his shoulders.” Which, again, Lee probably isn’t wrong and it is her place to write what she wants, but in the overall story of Anna K any reference to Korean culture feels out of place.
I had just finished two other YA books that questioned life’s purpose and the impact of a person’s life in this world before I got to Anna K, and it felt like a glass of spiked lemonade at a house party. While overall I enjoyed Anna K, it’s not one of my immediate YA recommendations. It felt easy and simple, nothing more than what it set out to be. It fit the same bill that Crazy Rich Asians fulfilled, but on a YA level. Like going from Vine to Tik Tok.