The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great
by Eva Stachniak
Although advertised as a story about Catherine II of Russia, the star of this book is Varvara, a ward of the Russian state. While still a teenager, she becomes a spy for at the court of the Empress Elizabeth, ingratiating herself to the Empress and becoming her eyes and ears. But even as she serves the queen, Varvara must also report to her true master, Count Bestuzhey, the man who trained her in all the tricks of a spy. When a princess from Zerbst comes to court to marry Elizabeth's heir, Varvara immediately latches onto her, and a special friendship forms between the two girls. As Princess Sophie grows older and becomes immersed in palace intrigue, Varvara is in her shadow, always watching and listening to serve the woman who will one day be called Catherine the Great.
It seems as if the marketing team didn't bother to read this book, for in truth it's barely about Catherine. It's really the tale of a fictional commoner-turned-spy-turned-noble who lives in the court of Elizabeth, Catherine's predecessor. I mean, yes, eventually Elizabeth dies and after many political shenanigans Catherine takes the throne, but she's not so much a character as a plot device. I had come into the book expecting Catherine to take center stage, so this was disappointing.
The story itself is written in a beautiful prose that really conjures up the rich excess of the Russian court. An empress who won't wear the same dress twice, building an elaborate new palace while people are starving...it's almost haunting, this specter of extreme poverty that hovers at the edge of the glittering glass and gold. But the beauty of the setting can't hide the fact that for long periods, it seems as if nothing much is happening. The action slows to a crawl as we read about endless renovations to the palace's construction. Much of what Varvara passes on to her bosses is little more than prattle and gossip, not much fun to read for the modern reader as we don't know most of the people she's speaking about.
3 out of 5 stars
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