Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Title: Enchantments
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.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

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.

Comments

  1. I'm loving the sound of this one...dark and striking describe the type of writing that I love. Too many times historical fiction is either melodramatic or overly dry and academic. Great review!

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    1. Jenna -- if I could have settled on a passage to quote, I would have, but I loved something on every page. Moody but not melodramatic is exactly it -- just infused with melancholy in that Russian-y way. So good.

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  2. I haven't read anything about the Romanovs, so this sounds fascinating!

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    1. Anna, while I wouldn't say this is a good intro novel as the focus is more on the tsarevitch and Rasputin's daughter, I do think it's an excellent historical novel overall, and will certainly shape your opinion of other Romanov novels. Really lovely writing.

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  3. I have read a handful about the Romanovs, but think that this book comes in from a direction that I know little about. It sounds like a great read, and one that I would probably relish. I think you did an incredible job with the review today, and really drove home all the reasons that the book worked for you. I need to find this one!

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    1. I had to limit myself, too, in talking about this book -- there's so much more I wanted to go on about -- the themes of enchantment and family and fathers -- but I was afraid the length was already a bit too much. This had just great language and imagery and fantastic characters.

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  4. This one sounds quite intriguing! I've read more and more historical Russian fiction the past few years, and I'm working my way backward.

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    1. Carrie -- it's a really lovely novel -- kind of literary historical, without being too obscure or flowery. Emotional but not melodramatic. The mood was just great.

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  5. I did not know he had a daughter. Interesting. And you saw the wall? That would freak me out

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    1. The wall completely freaked me out -- I cried at the exhibit. I felt like a weirdo but just seeing it was awful -- it wasn't a prop, you know? V upsetting.

      This novel had so much good stuff about Rasputin that I didn't know, especially since it's from the angle of his favorite daughter. She might be a dubious narrator in that sense, but I liked her voice a lot.

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  6. I loooooooove anything Russia. My husband lived there for a few years before we were married and he has passed his love of Russian on to me :) This book sounds awesome, even if I didn't have a love for Russia already.

    -Kate the Book Buff
    The Book Buff: Book Reviews for Regular People

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    1. Kate -- you'd so love this book then -- it has a great Russian-y feel. I'd love to visit Russia someday...

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  7. This sounds like another great read. I think you are on a roll with these historical books.

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  8. I was actually reading up on Rasputin's daughter, thanks to reading The Last Romanov, and I had no idea she'd lived in the United States. I am more interested in her than ever and this looks SO GOOD. Also, how jealous am I that you got to see that exhibit? This much ---> [ ]

    ;)

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    1. well, that was a much bigger empty space before I published the comment. But you knew what I meant :D

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    2. HA, I died laughing when I saw this! Stupid blogger being 'helpful'! Also, not to brag, but that exhibit was mind blowingly awesome. Insane -- and so desperately sad.

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  9. I love the Romanov's. This is my current favorite historical period. This book sounds so great. I can't wait to pick it up.

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  10. I am so glad to see how much you loved this one. I plan on reading it soon as well. It sounds like I'm going to like it.

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  11. oh yay, yay, yay! I'm reading this later this month and can't wait! So glad you loved it. Great review!

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    1. I can't wait to see what you think!

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  12. Rasputin is quite a character. I remember that my boyfriend and I completely drilled our private guide about him when we were in Russia. The poor guy was trying to go into other parts of Russian history (Catherine the Great, Peter I, etc), but we just had more and more questions about Rasputin's live. Do you know of a good biography of him?

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  13. I've been so eager to read this one! When it was first announced I had entered a contest to win an ARC - sadly I didn't. Better luck this time? :)

    The Romanovs are without a doubt, one of my favorite historical families. That gallery is only a state away from me! I'll definitely be sure to plan a trip to it at some point.

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  14. It sounds very interesting! Thanks for the giveaway.

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  15. In college I double majored in History and Political Science with a concentration in Russian/Soviet history - this book is right up my alley! I'm glad you enjoyed it ... that give me confidence that I will as well.

    Thanks for being on the tour Audra!

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  16. Oh this sounds so good!!! I love reading Russian hist-fic and am very interested in the Romanovs. I will have to check this one out!!!

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  17. I am so glad you interviewed Kathryn Harrison and posted your interview because I somehow missed this review of Enchantments and, as one who has been interested in the Romanovs since I read a biograohy of Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra when I was in high school. I don't know much about Rasputin but I've always meant to read about him. This book sounds fascinating and your enthusiasm for it is catching!

    I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful review and am now going to enjoy your interview :o)

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  18. Thanks so much for linking this up to the Immigrant Stories challenge - I hadn't even realized this story had immigrant themes. I like the fact that you mentioned this is for those that don't love historicals - that is definitely me! I will put this one on my list.

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    1. I was surprised too, but Masha emigrates and that's a huge part of the story -- so interesting! I hope you pick this one up!

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