Friday, April 26, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak is a fascinating book about Russian court intrigue and bedroom politics set during the reign of Empress Elizabeth. (The book opens in 1743.) The narrator is Varvara Nikolayevna, a spy or "tongue," in the empress’s court. Although originally noticed, then trained and partially seduced by the Russian chancellor, she is presented by him to Empress Elizabeth as a tongue of exceptional talent. The chancellor expects Elizabeth to make use of Varvara, but he expects his protégée’s first loyalty will always be to him.

At first, Varvara is placed in a position to spy on the empress’s nephew and heir, the grand duke, Peter. Things become more interesting when a newcomer arrives at Elizabeth’s summons–a bride for Peter. A princess from Zerbst, named Sophie, has been chosen to be the new grand duchess. Elizabeth instructs Varvara to "befriend" her. Varvara finds herself drawn to the charismatic Sophie and her loyalties shift. (Sophie has to convert to Orthodox Christianity and is given the name Catherine. In the future, this girl will become Catherine the Great.)

But that’s in the future. This is Varvara’s story. She is a compelling character in her own right. As a spy, a champion eavesdropper who has the empress’s permission to snoop, Varvara is able to provide all sorts of information to the reader that most first person narrators cannot reasonably access. If done clumsily, the book wouldn’t have worked, but Stachniak is able to make Varvara a convincing "tongue," one that the reader can empathize with, and all her information is smoothly—though certainly not effortlessly—obtained.

Through Varvara’s eyes, we watch as Empress Elizabeth becomes disenchanted with the bride she has chosen for Peter. The two youths are not suited. As they grow into young adults, they choose their own friends and lovers at court. Catherine is tasked with producing an heir, something she must achieve despite her husband’s disinterest. Everyone at court is involved in everyone else’s business. Important figures rise and fall, and Varvara takes note of them all, passing on whatever information she thinks is most useful to her goal, which has become protecting Catherine.

This is our historical fiction/history book club’s selection for our next meeting. I was pleased with the choice because it’s billed as "a novel of Catherine the Great." I know very little about this famous historical person, and thought the book might be a nice fictional introduction. It isn’t what I expected. It is a very nice introduction to Russian dynastic history–what happened before Catherine the Great came to power (although it focuses very much on what is going on inside the palace. There is very little "big picture" history.) It’s a good set-up for Catherine’s reign. And I enjoyed the book very much for all its strengths and for the glimpse of Russian history that it did show me. But I think I’d prefer to have known going in that I wasn’t really going to be learning about Catherine the Great–what made her great. This does make a good prequel to the next novel which will surely deal with Catherine the Great’s reign. However, the ending of this book was satisfying as it stands. As much as I enjoyed this novel, I think I might move on to Massie’s biography to read about Catherine.

This is my 9th book for the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.