Friday, November 1, 2013

Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

The epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.

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. 

Besides being one of the Evergreen picks, this book was recommended by a friend.  I am glad it was, otherwise, I may have passed over it.  I am not a bug fan of historical fiction - I often find them long winded and overly descriptive.  I also often feel as though I need to research the period and politics in order to really understand what is happening in the novels. So it was with a deep sigh and some hesitation that I opened the pages of Winter Palace.

I found that I liked the main character from the start but was stumbling a bit as the background was woven, even though I knew it was necessary.  A soon as Varvara arrived at the palace, I knew I was going to stick with it.  I am glad that the author chose to tell the story through an original character, an outsider.  This is a view point that I could appreciate, given my own lack of knowledge about the history of Russia and the time period.  I was also pleased that Varvara held a practical voice and was portrayed as rational and pragmatic and not overly emotional.  Given her situation and lack of personal freedom, her voice could have been bitter or weepy.  Her ability to adapt to, take advantage where possible and survive the situations thrust upon her made her a heroine that was likable.

The chapters where draped in the richness of the Russian court, the writing beautiful without drowning the reader in descriptive verse. I found the use of Russian and Polish words distracting and often scanned over them.  The language changes were used to describe items, food and names either as a means for the various characters to remember their origins or to mock other characters for not being true Russians.  As annoying as I found it, I must admit that it worked well to remind the reader of foreign status of certain characters, such as Barbara/Varvara.   It was a gentle reminder that however kind they were at the moment, she would always be viewed as an outsider.  The inner politicking, paranoia, excess and royal entitlement provided some wonderfully emotional fodder:  the devastation of a child being taken from the mother moments after birth; the power a piece of silly gossip can have to inspire forgiveness or condemnation; frustration of a life not your own; the danger of trusting someone; a love that quietly grows.

I really enjoyed the last third of the novel, the last chapters especially.  I picked up this book expecting a fictionalized biography of Catherine the Great, and was surprised (and ultimately pleased) to find instead a biography of Varvara, a servant girl.  While it is her connections to Catherine that drive the bulk of the novel, this is not the story of Catherine's rule.  This is Varava's tale. I was thrilled with the ending!

1 comment:

  1. I LOVED this book. Historical Fiction is my genre of choice, and after visiting my daughter while she lived in Russia for a year, I have become fascinated with Russian history. I am currently listening to the audiobook of Robert Massie's "Catherine the Great" while I drive to and from work. Although non-fiction, it reads like a novel. I highly recommend it