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The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the…
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The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great

by Eva Stachniak

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Showing 1-5 of 66 (next | show all)
A novel featuring proximity to the historically notable from the point of view of the ordinary, complete with intrigue, a palace coup, war, and a bookbinder’s daughter made into a countess – I was attracted to this book in a major way. And yet when it was finished, I felt it still wanted something.

"The Winter Palace" brings us the story of Catherine the Great’s accession to the throne of all the Russias in 1762. It’s told from the point of view of Barbara (Varvara in Russian), a young girl who has immigrated with her father and mother to St. Petersburg from Poland. As this young girl reaches adolescence (circa 1749 or so) she makes herself valuable to the Empress Elizabeth’s Chancellor, for her ability to gather and keep secrets. She becomes a spy for his excellency, and a pretty reliable one. In a few years, along comes Sophie, a princess in the German ruling Anhalt family, a young maiden of fourteen, who is betrothed to Empress Elizabeth’s nephew and heir-designate, Peter. The book contains the narrative of Sophie, who will take the Russian name Catherine: she arrives at court, bravely tries to get along with Peter, finally marries him, and bears a son whom the Empress takes from her to raise herself. Six months after the old Empress dies, after Peter has ruled disastrously as her heir, Catherine’s supporters confer all power on her and her reign starts in a (nearly) bloodless coup.

The novel’s take on human nature, while I’m sure wholly accurate, remains flat – it’s a monotone of grasping, secretive jealousy, and hunger for power. While I have no doubt that the court of Empress Elizabeth was exactly this way, the story could clearly do with some relief from this miserable and all-encompassing mania. Also I could have wished for a more effective description of the architecture of the palaces and temporary quarters the principals lived in, and more especially of the international and domestic issues that Elizabeth is noted for having dealt with. Yes, we witness this story through the eyes of an unimportant courtier, but Barbara is an awfully quick study, and a large thinker. She would have understood the hazards for Russia contained in the surprise Anglo-Prussian treaty from the Seven Years’ War, for instance.

However, for anyone interested in the novelization of Catherine’s early life and rise to power, this will be a must-read. The author does an excellent job of portraying the royal family in all its jealousy, vainglory, and profligacy, and doing a fully nuanced, justified job on Catherine herself. I would not recommend this book to readers who lack those interests, though.

http://bassoprofundo1.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-winter-palace-by-eva-stachniak.ht... ( )
  LukeS | Jul 5, 2014 |
From the title you can probably guess that this is historical fiction set in the time of Catherine the Great of Russia. I thought this would be fun to read because I recently read a biography of Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie that I loved. This novel tries to tell Catherine's story through the eyes of Varvara, a orphan who ends up a servant in the Winter Palace, moves her way up through spying, and ends up a friend of Catherine. There were some things I liked about the book. One was that the details were very accurate and matched up with the non-fiction I just read. The first half of the book really grabbed my attention. Unfortunately, the book had too many flaws for me to really recommend it. I think that the author just couldn't decide who the book was really about - Varvara or Catherine. The title leads the reader to believe that Catherine is central, but she doesn't succeed in painting a clear picture of Catherine. Also, the book only goes up to Catherine's accession to the throne so most of Catherine's life is waiting around and being marginalized by Empress Elizabeth. The book needed to either be trashier (in a good, gossipy way) or be better written to qualify as a really good book.

All in all, I'm not sorry I read it, but I didn't like it enough to recommend it. I think the author is planning a sequel which I won't be reading unless I'm really bored. ( )
  japaul22 | Jun 29, 2014 |
This story of a upwardly-mobile Polish bookbinder's daughter, who finds herself attending the young Catherine the Great as the "tongue" of the Russian Empress Elizabeth, is everything a historical novel should be. It's well-researched, beautifully detailed, and suspensefully plotted. I attended a reading of this novel last year by the Polish-Canadian author, and was impressed. ( )
  Panopticon2 | Jun 24, 2014 |
Varvara (Barbara) is a orphan who befriends Catherine the Great. This story is compelling and sad, with its moments of happiness. A must read!
  CarriePalmer | Apr 5, 2014 |
Biographical novels are interesting. And The Winter Palace was a good read. I do need to say that to start with. It was informative, well written and seemed to have been researched well (though not being knowledgeable of Russian history, I am just guessing on this one)

That said, Ms. Stachniak set a story line that threw open a potential door to create an atmosphere and character that could have been astounding. Alas, she fell short. She barely walked through the door. She gives us this young girl, Varvara, who is raised by her father who is a bookbinder. So, she is raised through much of her formative years outside of the palace till her father dies and she begins her life inside the palace walls. And it is from her that we hear the story. She becomes the ears and the tongue of the royalty, particularly, Sophia, or Catherine as she will become. She listens and she tells what she hears to those she serves. First, the Empress and then Catherine. There is far more in this book on the Empress than on Catherine, but I imagine that will be made up for in the sequel and it may be that it is necessary information to tell the history better. She tells the story well. But, she tells it as if she is a scribe, penning the details of the palace. Her character is not well developed. It is as if she is as much a mere voice on the page as she is in the halls of the palace. We don't experience the transformation she must have gone through in going from a merchant's daughter to a palace pawn. We don't get to experience the awakening and perverting of her character as she is trained to be a royal spy. We don't get the culture shock of the people on the outside versus the court. We don't get to feel the fear, the noise, the smells, the feels. Even the use of her body by her teacher is told as if from watching eyes and not the experience of the teller. In truth, it reads like so many biographical works, a wee bit on the dry side.

I wanted to understand and know Varvara, but I guess she was maybe just a vehicle to tell the story of Catherine. That's too bad, as it could have given so much more depth to the story and allowed it to be not only seen, but felt through the reader's eyes. Varvara was our tour guide through the palace and she did a good job of telling us the tale as she walked us past the glassed in walls of the exhibits. I would just have preferred a guide that invited us in and shared with us her soul story as well.

I'll read the next book in the series. It was well written and held my interest. And I am more than a little curious how much of the story she will tell. ( )
  sephibitchwitch | Feb 25, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 66 (next | show all)
"Stachniak (Dancing with Kings) sets the scene extravagantly with details of sumptuous meals, elaborate wardrobes, and cunning palace politics. Longtime readers of English and French historical novels will delight in this relatively unsung dynasty and the familiar hallmarks of courtly intrigue. "
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Cathy Lantz (Nov 1, 2011)
 
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Epigraph
St. Petersburg, October 17, 1756

Three people who never leave her room, and who do not know about one another, inform me of what is going on, and will not fail to acquaint me when the crucial moment arrives.

-from the letter of Grand Duchess of All the Russias (later Catherine the Great) to Sir Hanbury-Wiliams, British Ambassador to the court of Empress Elizabeth
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For Szymon and Chizuko
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The spies you learn about are either those who get exposed or those who reveal themselves.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553808125, Hardcover)

Tasha Alexander Reviews The Winter Palace

Tasha Alexander is the author of the bestselling Lady Emily series. She attended the University of Notre Dame, where she signed on as an English major in order to have a legitimate excuse for spending all her time reading. A confirmed Anglophile from birth, she and her husband, novelist Andrew Grant, divide their time between Chicago and the UK.

Like most lovers of historical fiction, I’m on constant lookout for a book into which I can completely disappear, one that will engulf all my senses and, in effect, turn my couch into a time machine. I want the history to be accurate, the characters to be compelling, and the story to make me reconsider preconceived notions about a period outside the area of my expertise. Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace does all that in spectacular fashion.

The scandal, luxury, and political unrest rife in eighteenth century Russia provide a rich backdrop, and Stachniak takes full advantage of all of it without sticking to the ordinary and expected. Instead of presenting Catherine the Great at the peak of her powers, she gives us the infamous empress during her youth, when she was Sophie, a young German duchess betrothed to the future Tsar Peter III. A not entirely welcome foreigner, Sophie is thrust into a court full of corruption and deceit, where nothing is more important than have a source of reliable information. It is by taking advantage of this circumstance that Stachniak gives her novel extra depth. Catherine is not the protagonist of The Winter Palace. Stachniak tells her story through Barbara, a young woman whose heartbreaking life has led her to employment as an ill-treated seamstress at the palace.

Until someone realizes she’d make a better spy.

Stachniak’s well-chosen protagonist enables her to give the novel a full and satisfying depiction of the Imperial Court, seen not only through the eyes of the privileged nobility, but through a woman who is keenly aware of what goes on above and below stairs. She brings to life the plight of the less fortunate and the delicate balance of truth and lies necessary to survive in the murky labyrinth of Barbara’s world. Stachniak fills her novel with intricate details--the opulence is all but tangible--but never does so at the expense of her story, which moves along at a clipped pace. Her prose, lush and evocative, is as elegant as the fabled Amber Room at Catherine’s summer palace.

The Winter Palace should secure Stachniak a place among the best historical novelists. It is one of those rare books that grabs the reader and won’t let go, one that begs to be read again, one that lingers pleasantly in the mind long after the finishing the last page. And for me, it proved itself in a more simple way: the minute I closed the book, I wanted to get my hands on everything else Stachniak has written.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:13 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

A reimagining of the early years of Catherine the Great traces the story of a naive German duchess as observed by young Barbara, a servant who watches her mistress's elevation and rises to become one of Russia's most clever royal spies.

» see all 8 descriptions

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