Staff Pick – The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

editor’s note: Please note that Ms. Stachniak will be reading at the Keshen Goodman Library  May 22th @ 7:00pm

Two girls, one a princess and the other an orphaned bookbinder’s daughter, face different but equally uncertain futures in the court of Empress Elizabeth in 18th century Russia.

The Winter Palace, the official home of the Russian monarchy from 1732 to 1917, is the backdrop for this lush and thoroughly readable historical fiction novel The Winter Palace (M) by Eva Stachniak.

A bookbinder impressed Empress Elizabeth with his loving restoration work, and in his debt, she promised to provide for his daughter in the event of his death. Varvara Nikolenka exchanges life as beloved daughter to working girl in the court of Empress Elizabeth. Varvara finds herself assigned to a team of seamstresses whose job it is to supply Empress Elizabeth with a new gown every day, although it is painfully obvious that she is utterly unsuited to the work. She finds escape in a box of books and is discovered by Count Bestuzhev, the Empress’ Chancellor, who is pleased to find her to be literate, intelligent and capable of speaking several languages. He teaches her the fine art of spying, and she contrives to bring herself to Elizabeth’s notice and is removed from the wardrobe.

Princess Sophie van Anhalt Zerbst begins as a tragic figure in this story, although we know that she will ultimately go on to become one of Russia’s greatest Empresses – Catherine the Great. It is Catherine’s job to produce heirs and beyond that she is of no use to Empress Elizabeth, and certainly of no use or interest to her husband, the Grand Duke Peter. She was selected as a bride for Peter in order to strengthen relations between Russia and Prussia and to weaken Austria. Vavara, who is Empress Elizabeth’s “tongue” plays to dual and conflicting role as spy and friend to Catherine. Despite their different stations in life, neither Catherine nor Vavara have any say in their choice of husbands and must each shape their destiny with cunning and by virtue of their own powerful personalities.

The Winter Palace is a world unto itself and it exists according to its own rules, a painful lesson which Varvara is forced to learn at an early age. It is a scary world in which betrayal is the norm and no friendship is safe. Varvara is warned that once you help someone achieve power, they quickly forget and assume that they accomplished it all by themselves. The atmosphere is menacing and the sense of powerlessness and unfairness is palpable. History tells us the story of Catherine the Great, but The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak brings it to life through the eyes and tongue of a servant girl.

According to Stachniak’s website she is working on another novel about Catherine the Great entitled Empress of the Night. (M) In the meantime there is also Robert Massie’s critically acclaimed biography Catherine the Great: portrait of a woman. (M)

“Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones.” publisher

editor’s note: Please note that Ms. Stachniak will be reading at the Keshen Goodman Library  May 22th @ 7:00pm

Happy Birthday, Little Prince!

Staff Pick – The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst