More than anything else I hate to see a truly gifted writer fail to achieve potential. To succeed in crafting wonderful prose, creating an enveloping atmosphere, only then to fail when history itself has given you the very plot and characters you need spin out your tale in a stunning coup de grace!
Eva Stachniak chose an interesting, completely fictional narrator, which does allow her interesting roving viewpoints throughout the palace. Her narrator is the orphaned daughter of the bookbinder to the Empress Elizabeth I of Russia, whom he begged to care for the girl in the event of his death. Upon that event she ends up in various lowly positions in the court, is made a mistress and spy of the Chancellor of Russia and begins her rise to fame. The author uses her considerable talents to create an ambience of espionage, sumptuous feasts, decadent clothing, and furtive love affairs, all of which the Russian courts of the age were well known for.
There is no “author’s note” attached to the book, other than one which states that this is a work of fiction. So why attach the subtitle “A novel of Catherine the Great” to the book? To serious readers of historical fiction such a note is a tag denoting a work which is seriously researched and essentially a work “biographical fiction”. Catherine is not even the major character in the book-Elizabeth is. Catherine comes to Elizabeth’s court as a young bride to Elizabeth’s heir, her nephew, Peter, and she and the narrator, Varvara, form an uneasy friendship, but Elizabeth remains that dominante force in the novel.
Some historical elements of the novel, such as Elizabeth’s relationships with Peter and Catherine’s children (and their paternity), the access that Elizabeth allowed Catherine to her children, and Peter’s character were fairly well portrayed. However, I felt that she grossly missed the mark in her portrayals of Elizabeth and Catherine. Elizabeth is portrayed as a completely debauched woman. There is no doubt that she loved parties and beautiful things, but she ruled Russia for twenty years and was very much the daughter of Peter the Great, continuing many of the positive things which he began, none of which comes across in this novel at all. Due to it’s subtitle, you feel like you are supposed to be focusing your attentions on Catherine, but so much attention is paid to Elizabeth that I couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied that her character was not fully developed and that it was so one-sided and unfairly portrayed. She was a woman of many talents who made many contributions to Russia during her reign. This novel ends shortly after the death of Elizabeth and Catherine’s seizure of power. Eva Stachniak is working on a sequel, continuing the reign of Catherine, as she becomes Catherine the Great. I sure hope she focuses on something other than the twenty something lovers that Catherine cycled through her bed in her lifetime. This could have been a wonderful book about two very strong empresses and a narrator who fought her way up from nothing. Instead it felt like two debauched empresses and an abused orphan-made-whore swimming through the mire that was imperial Russia.
This one barely merits three stars from me, and that only because Eva Stachniak writes some lovely atmospheric prose, and while she often fails to develop her characters, she does perfectly capture their personae: sultry, snide, catty, bored, swaggering, imperious-you name it, each in turn. I hope she learns from this one and makes Catherine more dimensional in her next book. There is a legion of serious historical fiction readers out there that is hers, either to win or lose.