Books! The life of a “Tongue”

I came across The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak while 11149173browsing a Goodreads list of new historical fiction. Even though it had some strong praise from the Washington Post and others, the cover was a bit bodice-ripper looking for me and I almost passed it up. But I’m glad I did not.

Stachniak tells the story of the rise of Catherine, who becomes Great, through the eyes of Varvara, a young ward of Empress Elizabeth. Varvara comes to live at court as an orphan and is recruited by the Russian Chancellor to become a “tongue” or a spy. Her job is to be the eyes and ears for Empress Elizabeth in the large and unruly court that surrounds her. When Catherine arrives to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter, and subsequently is used and abused (by everyone), Varvara allies herself with the young (future) Grand Duchess.

Stachniak descriptions of the court are well-written and imaginable. In some historical fiction works, the research seems laid on top of the narrative without the two meshing well. Stachniak interweaves what is obviously a tremendous amount of research with a strong and engaging tale. She does this not only with the chronological history but also the “set” in St. Petersburg. During the story, the palace is undergoing renovations that will make it into the grand Winter Palace. Her narrative makes it easy to imagine their surroundings.

I think the book does not have the correct title though as in many ways it is more about the life of Empress Elizabeth than Catherine. Because it is focused on Catherine’s early years and because it takes a really long time for her to become Empress, at the close of the book I felt I knew more about Elizabeth as a character than I did Catherine. I even know the name of Elizabeth’s cats. This may partly be intentional because the story is told from Varvara’s perspective and Varvara is ultimately burnt by her benefactress. In other words, we only know as much as Varvara does and in the end she doesn’t seem to know enough about Catherine and the power of court intrigue.

If you like historical fiction, this one is a keeper. Intrigue, power, sex, and … cats, lots of cats.

PS: Just noticed that it is listed on Goodreads as Catherine #1. Oh dear, another trilogy …

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CBR4 6: Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

I read Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman in February and needed to take some time to digest. My first encounter with Massie was Nicholas and Alexandra and I think that is true for most people.  Nicholas and Alexandra doesn’t have much new to add, but the story is told so well that it is hard to put down. You know the tragic end way before it comes and that intensity makes the story more engaging.

Catherine has the readability of N&A. Massie uses mostly secondary sources, even translations of her memoirs, and aims for a popular audience. Though it ranges over 600 pages, it doesn’t feel like you are reading a tome. Catherine becomes a real person in Massie’s writing especially in her early years which are accounted for in her memoir (apparently she didn’t get too far in her writing, probably too busy dividing Poland).

But the book lacks in not having the forward momentum that N&A has. With N&A you know the inevitable is coming, there is no escape, but Catherine just lives. And lives for a long long time. By her twelfth lover (or so) in her 60s, I have to admit I got a bit bored. I wish Massie had spent more time discussing Catherine’s foreign affairs and less attention on her lovers, but he is aiming to give a complete overview of her life. And complete it is.

I also should say that the timeline can get a bit difficult to follow. Massie doesn’t give a straight chronology based on Catherine’s life. It is more based on periods and people in her life. It can get confusing at times. Every so often I looked up random dates just to check but that may just be my issue.

Catherine the Great is a great book and well worth the read for anyone interested in this person, the time period, or how one of the greatest rulers of the 18th century came to power.