by Eva Stachniak
A companion novel to The Winter Palace
I liked The Winter Palace, a novel set in the court of Catherine the Great, so when I heard that Stachniak had written another novel - this time starring the Queen herself instead of one of her servants - I happily picked it up.
As Catherine the Great lies dying, she reminisces about her youth and her many loves. In fractured memories, scrambled by fatigue, illness and time, Catherine remembers her failed marriage, the many betrayals both great and small, and the men she poured her heart and soul into. She also recalls the powerful kingdom that was hers, and the wealth and prestige she gained as the Empress of Russia. The events of Catherine’s reign burn vivid and bright, reflecting a life well-lived even as her body fails her.
This book was quite a disappointment to me.
The narrative lurches and stumbles between a present time, where the aged Queen is dying from some sort of stroke, and memories from her past. It's scattered, random, lost. While this is no doubt an accurate portrayal of the fleeting mind of a sick woman, it's an ineffective literary device. It's hard to get a firm grasp of characters in this strange, scattershot narrative, and they seem less living, breathing men and women and more like puppets at a pantomime.
Catherine's strongest memories are of her many love affairs and sexual escapades; I found myself longing for more details about how this foreign woman managed to reign over a country as vast and varied as Russia, but it was not to be.
The book is long. No, I suppose that it only feels long, for it is less than four hundred pages. But the words that come to mind when trying to describe the writing are “ungainly” and “bloated” and “overwrought”. Perhaps I would feel differently if I hadn’t read The Winter Palace, because then the text would all be new and wouldn’t feel so repetitious. But having read Stachniak’s earlier novel, I would rather go back and read it again then read this new novel of Catherine the Great.
2 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2013: King Lear
2012: Event: Christopher Moore and Sacre Bleu
2011: Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler
2010: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith
2009: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith