Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The taste of the Russian peasant

The thespian side of Elizabeth's soul! Hunger for the awe lighting up visitors' faces when they reached her presence, having passed through the enfilade of staterooms connected through carved and gilded portals. Hunger for the gasps of astonishment at the soft browns and yellows in the Amber Room. Shades of ebony touching on the color of dark honey, through which she, the queen bee, floated in her luscious dresses, her high heels sliding on the polished mosaics of the floors. "How vulgar, Varenka," Catherine had murmured. "She has the taste of the Russian peasant she will always be."

The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak, is a historical novel centering on the rise to power of Catherine the Great of Russia, from the time she arrived at the court of Empress Elizabeth, at the age of 15. Catherine is a mythic character, but the truth is I know very little about her.

Her story is told through the eyes of one of the maids at court, Varvara, the orphaned daughter of a bookbinder, whose main duties revolve around the transmission of information, or, more bluntly, spying.

I wanted to love this book, but didn't. A little over halfway through I toyed with the idea of abandoning it. After all, I know the story ends in a coup and Catherine's ascension to the throne. I think the only thing that pulled me along was the introduction of the character of Count Poniatowski and the connection to Polish history, though I think my curiosity would be better served by a biography or history text.

The tagline — "behind every great ruler lies a betrayal" — is a little misleading; there is no single betrayal on which events hinge.

It was not believable to me that Catherine would suddenly have so much support, at court, among the Guard, after having lived so much on the sidelines, out of the court's and public's eye. Her life was fuller, of course, than we are allowed to see (and the novel is weaker for us not seeing it).

That's one of Varvara's epiphanies, but she comes off as rather pathetic for not having realized earlier that her status was not unique, for not having questioned some sources of information or the nature of other relationships. For someone in the know, she knows very little. Similarly, I don't buy Varvara's grief for her husband, and the characterization of her relationship with her daughter feels forced. It's too bad that we experience all the novel's events through someone whose characterization is relatively weak.

There's a disconnect between her perception, Catherine's story, and what I think the reader is intended to come away with.

About the palace cats.


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