The intricacies of court life are told in the first person by servant Barbara (Vavara in Russian).
The reader spends a brief time with Barbara and her parents before tragedies strike and she is made a ward of the Empress Elizabeth in recognition of a book binding service her father gave to the Empress. Barbara’s mother had been told her daughter would marry into a noble family and so Barbara wanders if she will meet her noble at court.
Initially finding herself serving in The Imperial Wardrobe, Vavara is treated harshly until a chance meeting with the Chancellor moves her to be assigned (as a spy) in the Grand Duke’s court as a maid of the Bedchamber. This enables her to befriend the princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst – who later becomes Catherine the Great. It is through this friendship that Vavara makes the wrong choices and the Chancellor arranges it so that she is married and away from court – although he does need her skills later on in the story.
What I thought:
When I first started reading I was pulled in by the intrigue of the spying and lies. I was fascinated at the portrayal of the Empress Elizabeth, at how superstitious she was and how she changed things on a whim. I wondered how tense it must be all the time to live in an environment where you had to have the skill of being able to read the undertones and be prepared to change you response from one moment to the next. I found it interesting to follow the changes in Catherine the Great from her first entry into court with her mother by her side, to the coup.
There are a couple of things I didn’t enjoy. The plot is slow moving and at times I found my thoughts drifting off … and I didn’t feel emotive about the characters. The story is told through Vavara’s eyes – usually for me, a first person narrative provokes my emotions, as I become that character. I didn’t feel this with Vavara but that may have been because I didn’t identify with her distanced emotions!
Despite this, I really did enjoy the story as a whole. We journey with Vavara through her life with her family, into the court as an orphan, as a married woman and finally alone with her daughter. Through that time we see Vavara learn to shield her emotions and become distanced, allowing a friendship to develop with Catherine the Great, and then as an independent woman away from Russia with her daughter … and finally thinking what she wanted from life and not how to please everyone else.
From an historical perspective, the author has used a number of biographies of Catherine the Great to create the story including her memoirs and letters from her early life.
Also on my blog Jera's Jamboree http://jerasjamboree.wordpress.com/