Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak

This morning I engaged in one of those mental back-tracking exercises where you try to figure out where and why you got interested in a topic, and I surprised myself at where I ended up.  The purpose of these musings was to figure out when and were I got interested in imperial Russian history – it’s not something that I experienced growing up (like British colonial history), since that was my dad’s area of interest as an amateur historian.  

But then I realized, like all good things in this world, the origins are in British history – follow me on this: as a kid, my dad watched the Sharpe movies on TV; I developed one of those celebrity crushes on Sean Bean; I then spent oodles of time and my (very little) disposal income hunting down all his movies; Sean Bean stared with Sophie Marceau in Anna Karenina (1997, and don’t get me started on the new version); I then read Anna Karenina in grade 10 as part of an independent study project; I followed that up with an undergrad course on the history of imperial Russia and a Russian language course at University; and now, I spend my time indulging my interest in Russia through literature.  As part of that (and to avoid re-reading Anna Karenina, because I just got through War and Peace), I dug into my latest read The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak for a bit more of that Russian ambiance.  

The Winter Palace tell the story of Barbara (who has about 50 nicknames thanks to the Russian penchant for monikers), an orphaned bookbinder’s daughter who, thanks to her father’s profession and work for the Empress Elizabeth, winds up in the imperial Russian court as a ward of the state following her parents’ death.  With a quick mind, it’s not long before Barbara gets caught up in the spy-game at the palace, first working for Elizabeth, but then shifting her loyalties to Sophia, later Catherine, who is brought to court to marry Elizabeth’s nephew and heir, Peter.  From Barbara’s position as a spy, the reader is given a glimpse of the private lives of all three players in this dynastic game.  Intensely loyal to Catherine, Barbara is witness to the heartache, the lovers, and finally the coup that put her on the imperial throne.  

Stachniak’s work is incredibly readable – I found myself halfway through it before I could blink, and I spent lots of time reading during the week (which I rarely do).  The plot is well paced, the characters are engaging, and the author’s writing style is delicate and well balanced.  I have no complaints about this book on those fronts!

My one reticence comes from the time frame of the book.  The sub-title to my edition is “A Novel of Catherine the Great.”  I get the impression that that bit wasn’t included on the first print of the book, but was added later as Stachniak is working on a sequel.  But the truth is, this isn’t about Catherine, it’s about Barbara; and it’s not even about Barbara’s interactions with Catherine the Great, but rather with Catherine as the Grand Duchess.  The reader does get to see the palace coup, but only in the last couple of chapters, and for a whole host of reasons Barbara isn’t even around Catherine all the much after that.  I get that Stachniak is gearing up for a series on the topic, but as one of my profs used to say/bark at us, picking an accurate title is half the battle.

But, regardless, I strongly recommend that you check out this book.  It’s an excellent read, and I’m really looking forward to exploring more by this author.  In fact, this book was so good, that I think Stachniak fortified me for another run at Tolstoy – Anna Karenina, here I come!  

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