Review: The Winter Palace

Friday, March 30, 2012

Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.

What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power.

With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia. 

I tend to be a bit wary of historical novels that purport to retell the story of a famous figure through the eyes of a fictional lady-in-waiting/soldier/court hanger-on. In my experience, these fictional characters turn out not to be the best means of telling a familiar story. Either the fictional character's own life takes over, obliterating the reason you picked up the book in the first place (to experience the historical figure's life in a new way) or there is no need for the fictional character at all and the story could have been better told from the perspective of the historical figure. 

The Winter Palace almost immediately shattered my preconceptions about such stories. From the moment Barbara began telling her story - in an elegant but cynical tone - I was hooked. First-person narrative can be an excuse for the author to engage a reader's sympathies in favor of their lead character - Stachniak tries no such tricks here. Barbara acts and feels real. You get caught up in her paranoia and her shame; you understand her desire for information and power even as you look back with her chapters later at the mistakes that were made. She has flaws but you understand why she acts the way she does. 

I appreciated Catherine's path to becoming Empress all the more because Barbara's story took me into the shadows and sewers of Imperial power. Stachniak smartly keeps her scenes fast-paced and lean. There are no elaborate scenes that go on for pages and pages - everyone in the book is too busy fighting, gossiping, scheming and lying and the pace reflects their desires. Every author has a "sense" that they make their own and Stachniak's is scent. By the end of the novel, you can distinguish characters by their perfume and recognize rooms in the Winter Palace by their stink.

If I have any quibble with the book, it's that it sometimes felt too real. The courtiers and royals are so cruel with each other that I was bit put off about halfway through the book. But this was a minor setback - I was too engaged in the battle for power to stop reading for too long. Some reviewers on Amazon have commented that this felt as though it was more Barbara's story than Catherine's and noted the sub-title "A Novel of Catherine the Great." I suspect this is due more to the publisher's marketing department than any misguided intentions on the part of the author. The middle third of the book does take Barbara away from Catherine and the Imperial court to focus largely on her own domestic problems. I didn't mind this section, knowing that Barbara would most likely find her way back to Catherine's side in time for her coup and the death of her husband. I like to think of this book as an angle on Catherine the Great's story - not the full story itself. 

The Winter Palace will become one of those special books that I make an effort to buy even after reading a library copy. I feel as though I could open it up at any page and immediately be drawn back into the sensations and struggles of 18th century Russia. 

Review: The Siege

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The year is 1941, and the good people of Leningrad are squeezed between fear of Stalin's secret police and rumors that the Germans, despite the incredulity of military experts, are rapidly advancing on their great city. When the inevitable happens, 22-year-old Anna, an artist and the sole support for her young brother, invalid father, and the latter's former mistress, learns to survive the devastation and mass starvation that the siege brings. In the worst days of winter, Anna falls in love with a doctor, Andrei, who returns her passion, creating an oasis of emotional privacy within the hell of war (from Amazon). 

In the week since finishing this book and its excellent sequel, "The Betrayal," its characters, images and situations have stayed with me to a surprising degree. I was initially hesitant to commit to a novel about the Siege of Leningrad - one of the most horrific moments of the 20th century. But the beauty of Dunmore's writing and the utter believability of her characters won me over. I was particularly struck by how naturally the characters acted - to the point where I ceased thinking about them as characters in a novel and felt as though I was bystander or witness to an incredibly detailed documentary of life in Leningrad in 1941.

Dunmore is particularly good at drawing out a character's inner thoughts and keeping these musings vital and interesting and free from exposition. Her description of food and hunger was incredibly vivid and actually affected me physcially as I was reading.

I'll say little about the sequel as I don't want to give away the events that ended "The Siege." If anything, "The Betrayal" is even more difficult to read.

I understood the experience of war, hunger and family in new ways thanks to Dunmore's brilliant writing and hope that she will continue to revisit the heartbreaks of Russian history in future novels.

Review: The House at Tyneford

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It's the spring of 1938 and no longer safe to be a Jew in Vienna. Nineteen-year-old Elise Landau is forced to leave her glittering life of parties and champagne to become a parlor maid in England. She arrives at Tyneford, the great house on the bay, where servants polish silver and serve drinks on the lawn. But war is coming, and the world is changing. When the master of Tyneford's young son, Kit, returns home, he and Elise strike up an unlikely friendship that will transform Tyneford-and Elise-forever (from Amazon). 

The more historical fiction I read, the more I appreciate historical novels that don't self-consciously set out to be about "history." I find myself enjoying books that seem contemporary to their own time. This is a hard concept to describe but I basically want to see people and situations that are true to the time but don't constantly remind you of it. Obviously, this is an extremely tricky balance for a writer to nail.

The House at Tyneford succeeds on this level and many others. I felt as though I was traveling along with Elise, a 19-year old Jewish girl from an upper middle class family who escapes growing anti-Semitism in Vienna by securing a visa to work as a maid in England. I wasn't aware that many rich Austrian girls escaped in this way and was interested to learn more about this slice of history.

The book is written from the perspective of a much-older Elise looking back on her life. I appreciated Solomons' ability to hit just the right wistful note without succumbing to the temptation for melodrama that dogs many novels in the "old-lady-looking-back-on-her-life" sub-genre. The descriptions of the English countryside and the coastline are breathtaking as well as showing the reader how closely Elise comes to identify and care about her new home.

There are a couple of plot twists that were telegraphed a bit too broadly for my taste. I could see what was coming from about a mile away but its' a testament to Solomons' ability to make me care for the characters that I still wanted to spend time with them even though I had a pretty good sense of what was coming.

I initially picked this book up because the cover and title reminded me of Downton Abbey. I think fans of that show will find much to like here even though Tyneford is a very different kind of story. It's about the very end of the Downton Abbey world and how class and social barriers - already impacted by the Great War- were completely pulled down by the beginning of the second World War. I've already recommended this book to my younger sister and will definitely talk it up with work colleagues who are Downton Abbey fans.

Tyneford is a small but beautiful gem of a book that goes a long way towards making the reader understand the far-reaching impact war can have on civilians and a way of life.  

Reading about the Romanovs

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Last night, my reserve copy of Virginia Rounding's new book "Alix and Nicky: the passion of the last Tsar and Tsarina" finally came in to the library. I'm already about fifty pages in and am finding it an interesting read. Rounding sets out to pick apart why Alix and Nicky failed as rulers with some new takes on old questions, such as Nicholas' reaction to Bloody Sunday, the influence of Rasputin and Alix's apparent inability to fulfill her duties as Empress due to ill health.

I disagree with Rounding's conclusions when it comes to Alix' ill health. I think Alix was fundamentally unsuited to be Nicholas' consort and the evidence shows that she suffered from a lifelong depression and hypochondria that eventually developed into real physical ailments as she aged, particularly after Alexei was born and she blamed herself for his hemophilia. I dislike simplistic historical reasoning that posits that the Russian Revolution never would have happened had Alix not passed on hemophilia to Alexei and depended so greatly on Rasputin's help. 

However, I do think it's interesting to wonder what would have happened had Nicky married a royal woman far more suited to the role. One who would have kept the family in Petersburg, engaged with the court and not held such fanatical, fatalistic religious views that resulted in chaotic government appointments and dismissals during WWI. In this respect, I find Alix an utterly unsympathetic historical personage - she was directly responsible for the deaths of men in war due to her meddling with the Russian government and absolutely absurd reliance on Rasputin's political advice. 

Due to Massie's enormously popular "Nicholas and Alexandra," the couple is seen as a pair of hapless romantics with a perfect marriage and children thrust into an impossible situation. I'm much more interested in seeing Alix and Nicky as complicated personalities with subtle shadings of bad and good and Rounding's book - at least so far - seems to be attempting such a perspective. 

Over the past month, I've also read Julia P. Gelardi's "From Splendor to Revolution: The Romanov Women from 1847-1928," Gelardi's account of four Romanov women of (roughly) the same generation: GD Marie Alexandrovna, Empress Marie (mother of Nicholas II), GD Miechen (wife of GD Vladimir) and Queen Olga of Greece. I found the book entertaining but it ultimately added little to my previous understanding of that time period in Russian history. 

I also bought "25 Chapters of My Life: The memoirs of GD Olga Alexandrovna" (daughter of Alexander III and sister of Nicholas II) to read on my Kindle. The first half of the memoirs is a fascinating look at what it was like to grow up as the daughter of the Russian emperor. Olga is surprisingly good at describing the details of royal life, her brothers and sister and the beauty of the Russian countryside. Unfortunately, Olga's first marriage was a disaster and the second half of the memoir expends a great deal of energy covering up this hole in her life and avoiding the uncomfortable facts of the coming revolution. The writing style became very different, almost fragmented and quite difficult to read.

After the disappointment of Kathryn Harrison's "Enchantments" and the surprisingly good "The Pretender," I'm hoping there will be more good Romanov fiction to supplement my nonfiction reading!