Disclaimer: I received an ARC from Net Galley in exchange for a fair review
This book is one of the prettiest frustrating books I have ever attempted to read. Let’s look at the synopsis:
Catherine the Great, the Romanov monarch reflects on her astonishing ascension to the throne, her leadership over the world’s greatest power, and the lives sacrificed to make her the most feared woman in the world–lives including her own…
Catherine the Great muses on her life, her relentless battle between love and power, the country she brought into the glorious new century, and the bodies left in her wake. By the end of her life, she had accomplished more than virtually any other woman in history. She built and grew the Romanov empire, amassed a vast fortune of art and land, and controlled an unruly and conniving court. Now, in a voice both indelible and intimate, she reflects on the decisions that gained her the world and brought her enemies to their knees. And before her last breath, shadowed by the bloody French Revolution, she sets up the end game for her last political maneuver, ensuring her successor and the greater glory of Russia.
Sounds awesome, right? Catherine the Great was one of the early modern period’s greatest monarchs, regardless of gender. Here’s a woman that you know has to be both intelligent and cunning in order to reign as long as she did and to be as prosperous as she was. She should be the source of tons of rich material for a novelist to play with and yet tragically the author focuses so much on the personal to the expense of everything else. I started to get this nagging feeling about 40% in that something was off. 50% in I started wondering why I was still reading. 60% of the way in I realized that I had barely learned a thing about her except that she could be too forgiving (a phrase repeated time and time again). I learned more about the personality of her lovers and of 18th century medicine (bloodletting is bad kids) than I did of her. And for a novel that is meant to be a retrospective look at her life, that’s not a good thing.
If I had to pinpoint the one major thing that might have lead the book astray, it would have to be the structure of the book. It is simultaneously one of the best and worst things about it. On the one hand, it’s beautifully written. The conceit – Catherine has had a soon-to-be fatal stroke at 77 and spends the last day of her life reflecting over her life – works well. There’s this beautiful kind of hazy feel to the book. The book isn’t really linear in the traditional sense. One paragraph she’s a few months married, the next it’s seven years later. It makes sense, a dying person isn’t going to go over every moment of her life. On the other hand, I think this is where the problem lies. One minute her then Favorite Count Orlov is talking about possibly staging a coup. The next paragraph the coup is done. Finished. Successful and she’s donning a military uniform to greet her subjects. That’s fine for her sake because she obviously knows what happened in the intervening period. Unless the reader is a historian though, they probably don’t. By writing the book in this way we almost never get to see Catherine be Catherine. We never really see her tangle with her foes inside or out of the court. We never see her cultivate her spies or even really lovers beyond who introduced them. We never get a sense of what made Catherine so Great, not the way that we were promised and even teased.
The beginning of the book has this great section where we see then-Sophie come up with a way to get out from under the thumb of her mother (whom she can see is going to ruin her prospects at Court if she doesn’t do something) and ingratiate herself more to Empress Elizabeth. I loved it and I wanted more of that and I think that at least some those picking up this book would want more of that too because even today she’s more discussed for her notorious love life (which by modern standards doesn’t seem that scandalous at all) than her accomplishments. Instead the focus is squarely on her lovers and she’s deserving of better than that.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? Catherine complains of the slander of her love life on multiple occasions throughout the novel so what does the author choose to focus on? Her love life. At the end of it all, it felt like an opportunity missed.
The author took great pains to paint Catherine as a woman of strong will, but by focusing in so closely on what realistically is one of probably the least interesting aspects of her life, I lost my will to finish this book before she lost her will to live.