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Anna, Ann, Annie by Thomas Trebitsch Parker

August 8, 2015

anna

In 2013, I took a short story writing class from Tom Parker. He’d been teaching for 50 years. It was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken, so I picked up this book to see what he’d written. This review is probably somewhat biased by my experience in his class.

As the title implies, Anna, Ann, Annie, is about the changing identity of a woman. At the beginning of the novel, Anna Moser lives with her eccentric parents in Vienna, 1927. Like any ten-year-old girl, she is just beginning to find her place in the world. She is a talented pianist with a potentially bright future. But as the Nazis gain influence and grow increasingly violent, her world starts to crumble. She leaves Vienna for London in 1937, later London for the United States.

Years skim by as Anna moves from place to place, relationship to relationship, trying to find something that brings her happiness. Her husbands are sometimes brutal, sometimes boring. The book jacket says it well: “With the economy of scenes glimpsed from a moving train,” Anna’s life unfolds with twists and surprises—much less like fiction and more like real life.

Characters are nuanced, environments are richly textured and the subtle emotions of relationships are spot on. It is this last point that is the greatest strength of the novel. The emotional realism of how the small incongruities of relationships can stand in the way of happiness and connection.

“You think that after what happened there is anything about human behavior that can be understood? It’s all a terrible perversion. There are only victims and survivors,” Ann’s mother says to her after the war. She is referring, of course, to the Holocaust. But she might also be referring to humanity in general and the random, senseless way that people make their way through life.

Still, in fiction, there must be an underlying logic, a consistency, to why characters act and react the way they do. Without it, the story would feel disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying. Here, as the plot wanders from place to place like different movements of a symphony, the emotional timbre provides that linkage. When tempers flare, when conflicts explode—when Anna falls in with her third and final husband, an abusive gangster; and with her final, desperate act of rebellion—it all feels realistic, an eruption of something that has been coursing through the pages, often under the surface, all along. This comes not from great writing, but from an uncanny understanding of people and how they work. Something we talked about a little in Tom’s class, but I see masterfully executed in this book.

Parker, in an interview, discusses how Anna, Ann, Annie is an exploration of his mother’s suicide. “For many years, I took the blame for my mother’s death by suicide. I kept thinking I was in a position to save her life. Annie gets me off the hook. The blame goes much farther back.” It must be daunting to fictionalize such an emotional topic. Here he succeeds in not just an act of catharsis, but an insightful examination of the human condition.

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