I think you probably all know by now that books CAN be too smart for my brain. Usually included in this category are books dense with history (I rarely even read historical fiction). But for some reason this book called my name.
Someone must have mentioned that it was good on audio, because this is a bit of a doorstop...672 pages in print! I figured, what did I have to lose but a couple of weeks? I might even learn something.
Synopsis: Written by the man with a Pulitzer to his name and who has spent his whole life studying the Romanov dynasty, Robert Massie brings to life the story of Catherine the Great. As a 14 year-old, low-level German princess, she was betrothed to the immature and self-absorbed nephew of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, Peter III. Not only was Peter more interested in playing with toy soldiers than creating an heir with Catherine, he was unworldly and uneducated, and completely incompetent to one day take over the throne. Catherine on the other hand, spoke many languages, was a lover of literature, the arts and politics, and had ambition. It was this ambition that, once Empress Elizabeth passed, propelled her to stage a coup and take the throne from Peter, and go on to act as one of the most influential leaders in Russian history.
Through letters and journals, Massie allows the reader total access to Catherine, her family, her confidantes and cabinet members. Once it becomes apparent that Peter won't be fathering an heir or providing companionship, Catherine takes lovers to do the job...one after the other up until the day she died. She builds comprehensive libraries and art collections, creates orphanages, improves education, promotes religious tolerance, civil liberties and public health with the small pox vaccine. Also, to gain control of water access, she colludes with Prussia and Austria to partition Poland almost into non-existence.
She was one powerful ruler, but also a woman with frustrations, sadness, passions and fears. This well-researched masterpiece of a novel takes the pages of history and bring them alive in a saga that leaves the reader enthralled and breathless to the very end.
My thoughts: All I have to say is WOW. If my history books would have been half as good as this novel (and why the hell CAN'T they be???) I would have been a History major! This was some amazing stuff. The soap operas of today have nothing on Catherine. Volatile mother-in-laws, lovers sneaking in and out in the middle of the night, jewel-encrusted EVERYTHING, a coup against and murder of the whack-job husband, revolutionaries, wars, beheadings. Goodness!
The planned coup to get the throne away from her husband Peter was particularly exciting. I am woman, says Catherine. She had some serious cojones...a ball-buster way ahead of her time. I was impressed, and in awe of her courage and ambition. But over time, I could see where she might be a handful. And I found it particularly ironic that the injustices shown to her in her early days were injustices she thrust upon others when she was in power. She also threw so much money around. Silly money. Sort of like our government now.
I was also immersed in the story of one of Catherine's early lovers, Stanislaw Poniatowski. Stan the Man was two years younger than Catherine...a ripe and innocent 24 year-old member of Polish nobility when they hooked up. He fell hard for the future Empress, and was eventually run out of the country before there was a huge scandal. But Catherine stayed in touch, and once she was Empress, she "arranged" for Stan to be the King of Poland, knowing that he was weak and in love and she would be able the partition him into oblivion. I had some interesting discussions with my husband over this one.
So...based on my babbling you can tell that I was quite taken by this novel. For someone like me, who loathes anything lacking action and gets restless with history, I found the prose to be very accessible and fascinating. I will admit that it often was dense with all these Russian names, and I wasn't able to keep some of them straight. But the important ones stood out, as they always do, so I was able to keep up. I would recommend this book to anyone.
A few words about the audio production: Our narrator in this production was Mark Deakins, someone who is new to me, I am ashamed to say. This man has narrated a huge number of books, many of them on my TBR list. So I am sure I will hear him again someday. I thought he did a respectable job in this situation, with accents from various countries, of men and women. He is a restrained narrator, but one that is easy to listen to over a long period of time.
Audio book length: 23 hours and 52 minutes (672 pages)
5 out of 5 stars