St. Petersburg, 1917. After Rasputin’s body is pulled from the icy waters of the Neva River, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Masha, is sent to live at the imperial palace with Tsar Nikolay and his family. Desperately hoping that Masha has inherited Rasputin’s healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks her to tend to her son, the headstrong prince Alyosha, who suffers from hemophilia. Soon after Masha arrives at the palace, the tsar is forced to abdicate, and the Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest. As Russia descends into civil war, Masha and Alyosha find solace in each other’s company. To escape the confinement of the palace, and to distract the prince from the pain she cannot heal, Masha tells him stories—some embellished and others entirely imagined—about Nikolay and Alexandra’s courtship, Rasputin’s exploits, and their wild and wonderful country, now on the brink of an irrevocable transformation. In the worlds of their imagination, the weak become strong, legend becomes fact, and a future that will never come to pass feels close at hand.
Random House | February 26, 2013 (trade paperback) | 352 pages
Kathryn Harrison's latest novel, Enchantments, takes place primarily in the year leading up to the execution of Russian Tsar Nikolay II and his family. After the murder of their father, Masha and Varya Rasputin are sent to live with the Russian Royal Family. It is Tsarina's hope that Masha has the healing abilities of her late father, Grigori Rasputin, who tended to Prince Alyosha, the Romanov heir who suffered from hemophilia. It is not long after the arrival of the sisters, however, that Tsar Nikolay is forced to abdicate the throne and placed under house arrest with his family. To pass the time and keep Alyosha's mind off his illness, Masha spins stories about the Romanov's, Rasputin, her own childhood and some Russian legends. These stories are intertwined with narrative that is focused on the reality of life under house arrest, as well of Masha's activities after the death of the Romanov's.
I very much enjoyed certain parts of this novel, including the sections of the narrative that give the reader insight into the history of the Romanov downfall, as well as those that provide a glimpse into the life and sufferings of young Alyosha. It is not difficult for the reader to appreciate the pain and despair that young Alyosha must have felt when suffering from a bout of hemophilia. I also liked Harrison's characterization of Grigori Rasputin, who rather than being portrayed as a 'Mad Monk' comes across as a misunderstood and sympathetic figure. Another positive aspect of this novel is Harrison's eloquent prose, which helps to illicit emotion from the reader.
While there is much to like about Enchantments, I do have mixed feelings about this book. Most of the novel is told from Masha's perspective, a character I found difficult to garner an interest in. Although Harrison has a lovely way with words, certain of her descriptions are overdone. While I enjoyed Masha's stories about both the Romanov's and her father, I found myself skimming over those stories that seemingly had little connection to the plot. Masha's post-Revolution life outside of Russia also held little interest to me. Lastly, I thought the constant jumps back and forth in time disruptive to the overall flow of the novel.
Despite my issues with certain aspects of Enchantments, I think the positives of the novel ultimately outweigh the negatives and for this reason I would recommend the book to readers interested in Russian history, as well as to readers who enjoy historical fiction with a more literary bent.
Note: A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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About the Author
Kathryn Harrison is the author of the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot. She has also written the novels Envy, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water; a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago; a biography, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux; and a collection of essays, Seeking Rapture. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.
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