The Winter Palace : A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: 2012
Source: Copy provided by publisher through NetGalley
The Short Version:
The story of Catherine the Great as seen through the eyes of a palace servant.
Why I Read It:
I am an unaplogetic sucker for pretty much anything about the Romanov dynasty.
Varvara is the daughter of a Polish bookbinder. Her parents move to St. Petersburg in hopes of a better life for themselves and their daughter. Varvara’s mother dreams of her daughter becoming a part of the Imperial household which will provide her with better opportunities.
Through a series of both fortunate and tragic events Varvara does come to the attention of Empress Elizabeth and joins the Imperial household staff. She soon is recruited as a ‘tongue’ whose role is to observe from her relatively invisible servants role and report to the Empress what she sees and hears. When Elizabeth brings young Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst to become the wife of her nephew and heir Peter, she assigns Varvara (now known as Barbara) to Sophie in order ot spy on her and report back to Elizabeth.
Sophie the young relatively naïve princess will become Grand Duchess Catherine when she marries Elizabeth’s immature nephew. Although Peter is destined to become Tsar, it is Catherine who learns more from Elizabeth in both positive and negative ways. Barbara and Catherine grow up together and their loyalty to each other is tested again and again as Catherine becomes more and more of a power to be reckoned with in the complex political landscape that is Imperial Russia.
I’m a bit predisposed to like any book about Imperial Russia. When this book and Robert K. Massie’s non-fiction biography of Catherine the Great were both published within a few weeks of each other I was torn. There was no question that I would read both, it was just a question of in which order. I decided to read the Historical Fiction first. I’ll read Massie’s book later but in the meantime I thoroughly enjoyed this one and highly recommend it.
I’ve read enough about the true story of Catherine and her rise from foreign princess to Empress of Russia to know that Eva Stachniak knows her subject matter. Yes, it’s historical fiction so it’s not all true, but it doesn’t stray too ridiculously far from what I knew about Catherine to take me out of the narrative at any point.
For folks who are familiar with Catherine as well as those who don’t know much about her, this is an fun and entertaining story. The truth about the reigns of both Elizabeth and Catherine are bigger than life so they really don’t take much embellishment to make them into fascinating historical fiction. I’ve read that this is a sequel in the works that continues the story of Catherine (and I hope Barbara).
Whether or not you’re familiar with the real story, this is a book well worth reading.