So I was going to review my favorite book as my first blog review but I can’t do it justice right now. So I’ll start with what is fresh in my mind. My friend, Tina, asked me last night if I had read The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak. She visited the Palace last summer (which now houses the Hermitage Museum) and was excited to know my impressions of the book. Fair to middling at best is my answer.
The book is deceptive in its title. You would think it’s about the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and Catherine the Great. Well it’s not really. The book is more about a young girl named Barbara. When her mother dies of cholera and her father, a Polish bookbinder in the Russian court, dies soon after of a broken heart, Barbara is left an orphan at the mercy of Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Soon she catches the eye of Alexi Bestuzhev-Rhumin, the Chancellor of Russia who trains her in the art of spying and helps her gain the confidence of the Empress. Eventually she is given a prominent position in the palace, high enough to begin a friendship with the young Princess Sophie who would eventually become Catherine the Great and marry Peter III of Russia. The book tells the story of Barbara’s life, marriage, children, and most importantly her life-long relationship with Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg of Prussia.
Sophie was summoned by Empress Elizabeth I of Russia as a suitable match for her nephew, Peter III of Russia. The books begin when Sophie is 14 and continues until she is about 33, just after she becomes ruler of Russia. The book deals with her courtship, marriage, children, affairs, and ultimate coup over her husband in 1762. Unfortunately, the author portrays Catherine the Great as not so great. She is written as a silly, weak, laudanum addicted wimp. The Winter Palace plays a minor role in that they visit it every year. The author writes about how dark and damp it is, perhaps symbolic of Barbara and Catherine’s life, I guess.
The writing style is good, the editing is good, the plot is Ok. I just didn’t find the relationship between Barbara and Catherine believable. It was just too one dimensional. There was no true friendship. But, then again, maybe there can’t be if you are Catherine the Great.
I’ve certainly read better Russian historical fiction. I would recommend The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnival or The Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay if you are in the mood for Russian.
Three stars out of Five ★★★