Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison
Author: Kathryn Harrison
Genre: Fiction (Historical / early 20th century / Russia / Romanovs / Revolution / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Ex-Pats & Emigres)
Publisher/Publication Date: Random House (3/6/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked a great deal!
Did I finish?: I did, in a matter of hours!
One-sentence summary: Rasputin's daughter Masha struggles to survive after her father's murder in 1910s Russia.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories
Do I like the cover?: I do --it's dark and striking, like the story, and there's an ornate feel to the design that is reminiscent of the Romanov court.
I'm reminded of...: Geraldine Brooks, Katharine McMahon
First line: Behold: in the beginning there was everything, just as there is now.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow -- a historical novel for those who don't like historicals, this is a first person account of a gorgeous, frightening, tumultuous time in Russian history and a young woman who survived (physically).
Why did I get this book?: I love anything with the Romanovs.
Review: While I was in college, I got to see the Nicholas and Alexandra Exhibition in Wilmington, DE that included, among other things, lots of jewels, a wealth of photos, and the blood-stained and bullet-riddled wall where the royal family was executed. It was a sight I wasn't prepared for, and made for me the tragedy of the Romanovs uncomfortably real. Since then, I've been taken with fiction about that doomed family, in search of a novel that balances the silly excess of the Romanovs with a humane telling of their sad last days.
I got that in spades with this novel, as well as a unique portrait of a historical figure I'd no knowledge about: Rasputin's daughter. Maria Rasputina, called Masha in this novel, is taken in by the Romanovs after her father's murder. The Tsarina Alexandra, convinced that Rasputin's healing abilities have passed on to her, brings Masha to Tsarskoe Selo, the royal palace -- a Russian Versailles, essentially -- so that Masha can heal Tsarevich Alexei (called Aloysha in this novel).
Masha, a teenager with a spotty education from a girl's school in St. Petersburg who loves her father but finds court life baffling, immediately connects with the young tsarevich and becomes his confidante and friend. She enchants the hemophiliac prince, Aloysha, with her stories of life beyond the Tsar's compound, a world he can't see for risk of injuring himself. But Masha enchanted me as well, not just with her stories but for her account of the Romanovs. Harrison made horrifically real for me the pain that comes with hemophilia; Masha's eyewitness accounts of Aloysha's agony had my heart pounding with pity and fear.
Harrison's writing is just stunning: pretty and poetic without being ornate or obscure, providing context and setting without making me feel like I was at the beginning of a lecture. (And I say this as someone who loves really academic-y histfic.) The chilly lead up to the Romanov's end had me on the edge of my seat -- the scene with the former Tsar methodically chopping down his beloved poplars was weirdly frightening, given how banal the action was -- and Harrison gives her teenaged narrator a realistic mix of cynicism and innocence. A girl with Rasputin as a father knows more about the world than she should, and yet Masha waits with uneasy uncertainty about her future.
The story doesn't end with the Romanovs, but I don't want to say more -- I was unfamiliar with the lives of Rasputin's daughters so a great deal of the pleasure of this novel came from learning about them through Harrison. This is a story of a young girl who lives a thousand lives in one lifetime, shaped by a father who was brilliant, mad, pious, dissolute, and charismatic. At the end, I felt like I knew Masha, and closing the book, I missed her voice already.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Enchantments to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 3/23. For another entry, check out my interview with Kathryn Harrison.