I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars.
This was an entertaining novel that read like a melodrama. The plot is believable and fastidiously executed. The writing is melodious and sentimental. The novel is immensely rich in descriptive details, especially about court etiquette, palatial decor, clothes and jewelry. Having recently read Robert Massie’s factual non-fiction title Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, I can avow that this novel is based on meticulous research.
The novel is written from the perspective of Varvara, a bookbinder’s daughter turned spy in the Russian court during Empress Elizabeth’s reign. The first two-thirds of the novel dwell on Elizabeth’s vagaries, her extravagance and her suspicious and jealous nature, all seen through Varvara’s critical eyes. By comparison, the character of Catherine the Great is given a much less detailed treatment, although it can be said that Catherine is shown in a much less flattering light here, compared to Massie’s biography.
Often, the narrative is bogged down with Varvara’s personal maturing pains and many unnecessary details about places and things that are unrelated to the royalties. As much as Varvara functions as an effective narrator, it seems that she occupies the center stage for too much of the novel to leave enough room for the leading character – who should be Catherine, as the novel subtitle suggests.
On balance, it is a remarkable historical novel about 18th century Russian court life. I’m giving it 3.7 stars.