Author Topic: THE ROMANOV EMPRESS by CJ Gortner  (Read 1286 times)

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Offline Louis_Charles

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« on: August 16, 2018, 03:37:04 PM »
   I hate to whine (which will be news to my wife and several of my closest friends), but I read this book because my friend Maggie guilted me into it. Although to be fair, it didn't take much. I am a sucker for novels about my historical obsessions --- my dream novel would probably have Wallis Simpson, Richard III and Marie Antoinette all traveling together on the Titanic, only to wind up adrift in a lifeboat with Grand Duchess Anastasia and the Kaiser. Some enterprising fanfic writer should get on it.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. It didn't take all that much arm-twisting because, hello, Romanovs. I write this review after 1) purchasing the book, because I support authors 2) actually reading the book, because I am constitutionally incapable of not finishing a book I start --- honest to God, I have even read Mike Huckabee's memoirs, people! --- and 3) experiencing the dread of writing a review about a Subject Close to People's Hearts (Romanovs, royalty, Nicholas, Alexandra). This can be dangerous territory, because people who develop inappropriate crushes on dead people can get judgy about these kinds of things. What kinds of things, you ask? Oh, Kevin. I could unfold a tale that would freeze thy young blood. Ahem.

Anyway . . . ever since Shakespeare decided to write Richard III, we have been dealing with authors' efforts to rewrite history so as to conform to their peculiar literary needs. Which I get. We know literally nothing about Richard's interior life, so why not make it up if you wind up with a villain that Laurence Olivier made into a romp for his audience? Marie Antoinette and Anastasia, alas, come through loud and clear in the historical evidence. Both were dull and immature until the time came for a display of courage. But we do know what they were actually like because of surviving letters and journals, so if you are going to reinvent them, that may crop up. I once read a YA novel (still sitting on my shelf) in which the Tsarevich was texting some 8th grade girl in 2007 with a burner phone she managed to get to him. There is another in which Grand Duchess Tatiana is turned into a vampire. SPOILER ALERT: She is not happy with that. One other masterpiece has Alexandra shooting death rays from her eyes! Romanovs in particular suffer from reinvention.

Gortner isn't that nuts, yet there is not one single character in his novel about the life of Maria Feodorovna, Nicholas II's mother, who is true to his/her actual historical avatar. This despite a blurb touting The Romanov Empress' "authenticity." Assuming that the reader knows anything at all about the last Imperial Family, this book will disappoint. Assuming that the reader has any interest in literature, this book will do worse than that. Gone With the Wind works because Mitchell creates a "real" world despite the fact that it bears no actual relationship to the Confederacy. But we get invested in Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, Ashley (not really, no one cares about Ashley) and Mammy. We want to see what happens to them. Again, not Ashley. It's kind of the pleasure that Harry Potter gives me, because Tara is as realistic as Hogwarts, but I do want to know what happens to all of them.

If Gortner had replaced the actual personalities of the Romanovs with new and improved models, he might have had a chance, although a quick look at his thud-thud-thud style probably means he still would have been in trouble. The dialogue ranges from incredible to --- well, boring. When Maria talks to Nicholas about the Duma and takes the time to carefully explain to both her son and the reader what a Duma is, things get a bit slow. And while I do get the temptation to shove Alexandra under the bus, Gortner never offers an opinion as to what made the marriage work. The net result is that she rolls through the book as a sort of Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein. Other characters are picked up and dropped like Polish last names at Ellis Island. Sometimes Gortner is just historically wrong, and I am curious as to why he deviated. Rasputin puts the mystic moves on the Dowager Empress. Maria and her daughter Olga show up at Spala during Alexei's medical crisis, where they meet Anna Demidova. Natalie Wulfert is described by MF as unattractive in The Romanov Empress, when in real life she was considered a great beauty. Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna is pictured as a general blue meanie to her mother when in fact she was so devoted that she stayed with Matushka Dearest long after older sister Xenia lit out for the territory. It was the Queen Alexandra "limp" that society women copied, not the use of a cane. Alix giving Minnie advice on how to let your children have independent lives is hilarious given the way the real Queen Alexandra treated her sons and daughters. I could go on, but suffice it to say that you will know less about Maria Feodorovna when you finish the novel than when you started.

One last thing. What on earth is up with all the smoking? It's too bad Bette Davis is dead, because she would be dream casting as Maria, with maybe Miriam Hopkins as Miechen. The two of them smoke their way through The Romanov Empress, constantly lighting up and stubbing the ashes out in cut-glass bowls and such. They carry their cigarettes in Cartier cases. Because . . . luxury. Honestly, their scenes together (as well as with Felix Yusupov's mom) reminded me of nothing so much as Dynasty, with Joan Collins swanking around popping grapes into her mouth and smoking those cool-looking Silva Thins from the 80s. But only Davis would probably have been right for the Great Scenes in The Romanov Empress. "Alexis has hemophilia?!!! Nicky, light me up!" They had real tobacco stamina back in the day. (
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