I was Anastasia: review

I Was Anastasia
Ariel Lawhon
Doubleday
release date: March 27, 2018

I read Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra in high school when I measured books by length–the longer the better–and  by heft. At nearly 700 pages (Amazon tells me the hardcover weighs just shy of two pounds) the book kept me captivated for at least a few days. I read it in a rush, transported to tsarist Russia. I sighed over the love story of Nicholas and Alexandra, despised Rasputin for the dastardly sway he held over Alexandra. I longed to live in their grand homes, to wear beautiful gowns like the tsarinas. It’s probably safe to say I wouldn’t have been one of the peasants shouting at the gates of Alexander Palace.

Massie’s book read like a novel, and I still recommend it to a certain sort of my students today: the dreamers, the romantics, the lovers of fairy tales. It is, in fact, the whole of my understanding of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Anything I read about the events in a history book is lost in the cobwebs.

Story is that powerful.

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia
Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia

Ariel Lawhon’s recently released novel  I Was Anastasia is the first person account of Tsar Nicholas’s youngest daughter Anastasia, and her life in exile with the family. It is also the story of her life as the only surviving Romanov, a woman who lived as Anna Anderson but claimed to be Anastasia. Anna tried for years to get the courts to  rule in her favor so that she could inherit what was left of the Romanov estate. The story she tells is compelling: surviving the execution, she became a refuge smuggled out of post-war Europe. Anna came under the care of a number of wealthy benefactors. Some truly believed she was Anastasia; others were only interested in trading on her social cache. She spent time in a sanitarium in Germany and was later institutionalized in a mental asylum after a suicide attempt. Her fervent supporters included Gleb Botkin, the son of the Romanov’s physician who was murdered with the family. It was Gleb who arranged Anna’s move to the United States and her marriage of convenience to retired history professor Jack Manahan. As Anna’s memories unfolded in the novel, I was right there with Gleb–frustrated that others didn’t see the obvious truth of her claim.

I don’t think there is a Nicholas and Alexandra devotee who hasn’t wondered at one time or another if the tales of Anastasia’s survival were true. There have been at least six Anastasia contenders throughout the years, and our fascination with the story produced countless books, a movie staring Ingrid Bergman, and a Disney film. What a perfect ending to a fairy tale that would be–and the tale Anastasia tells in I Was Anastasia is believable and captivating.

Or is it?

A Piece of the World: review

A Piece of the World
Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow

a piece of the worldChristina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train made me curious to read more about the orphans shipped cross-country at the turn-of-the-century. So when I read about her latest novel A Piece of the World and it’s subject–the painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth–I immediately put the book on my wishlist.

And summer seemed like the perfect time to check it off.

My appreciation of Andrew Wyeth came in a round-about way. Like everyone else I was intrigued by the news of the Helga paintings discovered in 1986, and was surprised to find a second of the book The Helga Pictures at the bookstore where I worked. Then, on a trip to Washington D.C. a year later, I was able to view the collection at the National Gallery–without even knowing the work was on tour when I planned the trip. What an incredible story: over 300 never-known works by a famous artist, the intimacy of the pictures, curiosity about the relationship between artist and subject.

A Piece of the World sparked in me the same curiosity about Christina Olson, the subject of Wyeth’s famous Christina’s World. 

Christina Olson grew up in a farmhouse on the coast of Maine. Her parents were stern, but loving, and worked themselves (and their children) hard to make ends meet. Always a clumsy child, Christina’s physical condition gradually deteriorated until she had difficulty walking. By the time she was in school, Christina fashioned cotton pads for her elbows and knees, so she wouldn’t suffer cuts and scrapes. Even though her parents were willing to spend precious savings so that a specialist could diagnose her condition, Christina refused, hiding from her father when they arrived at the doctor’s office. Christina wanted to be loved for who she was, clumsy falls and all.

That stubborn determination was Christina’s constant ally–and ever-present enemy. It was that determination that allowed Christina to run the farmhouse as her parents aged and fall in love with a summer visitor. She attended dances with young people at the town hall, and fished with her brothers off the coast. And it was one of the qualities that painter Andy Wyeth admired so much in her. Wyeth himself suffered from a limp, and this might have been what allowed Christina to be open to their friendship. But Christina was also set in her ways and held on to hurts and perceived insults. She was a difficult woman if one was not one her good side.

Kline alternates between Christina’s back story and the thirty year long friendship that developed with Wyeth as he painted on the Olson property each summer. And like my fascination with the Helga pictures, I became curious about Wyeth all over again. (I must say that the internet made research a little easier this time around!) Michael Palin produced an episode about Wyeth for his BBC series titled Michael Palin In Wyeth’s World and I was able to find it on YouTube. The episode gave some great insight into Wyeth, but Palin interviewed the real Helga–and believe-you-me, the fantasy is much more satisfying that the reality.

If you like historical fiction or have always admired Wyeth’s painting, I can’t see how A Piece of the World would fail to please.

Girl Waits With Gun: review

Girl Waits With Gun
Amy Stewart
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

girl waits with gunConstance Kopp and her sisters Norma and Fleurette manage the farm just fine, thank you very much. They garden, raise chickens (and pigeons!), and, since their mother died, have successfully rebuffed brother Francis’s pleas to come live with him and his family in town: “You can’t stay on the farm by yourselves. Three girls, all alone out there?” But Francis is no match for their determined independence. Norma tends her flock of carrier pigeons, Fleurette (the youngest by seventeen years) sews with dramatic flair, and Constance holds everything together. To be sure, life is sometimes lonely, and money short, but they’re managing.

And then on an outing into town, one Henry Kaufman crashes into their buggy with his automobile, destroying it–but not the Kopp girls.

Constance naturally sends Mr. Kaufman an invoice for the damages. But Mr. Kaufman, he of Kaufman Silk Dyeing Company, is much too important and much too self-centered to care a fig about a farm buggy. To be honest, Henry Kaufman is nothing if not a bully. Even worse, he might be connected to the Black Hand, an extortion racket that operated at the turn of the century.

But he’s met his match in Constance Kopp.

The real Constance Kopp

Despite the fact that she’s a woman and the year is 1914, Constance sets out to right the wrong that was done to her family. And that’s where the fun begins. With the help of the local sheriff, Constance pursues justice relentlessly–despite bricks through her window, a break in, and threatening letters. And as she works with Sheriff Heath, she comes to realize what so many of us do–she wants more. She needs something to fulfill her beyond the garden and taking care of the house. The sheriff respects what Constance cannot acknowledge: her sharp mind and quick wit.

If this was just a sweet novel about old-time justice and independent women at the turn of the century, the story would be satisfying enough.

But writer Amy Stewart based her book on a true story. Yes, Miss Constance Kopp did indeed exist–and became one of the first female sheriffs in the U.S. You can read more about her and see archival documents on the author’s website.

And you know what’s even better than this fun novel? There’s a second in the Kopps Sisters Series, Lady Cop Makes Trouble. You can be sure it’s on my TBR pile.

To capture what we cannot keep: review

To Capture What We Cannot Keep
Beatrice Colin
Macmillan

to capture what we cannot keepBeatrice Colin’s new title To Capture What We Cannot Keep tells the story of the building of the Eiffel Tower and a love that almost wasn’t. Caitriona Wallace, a young widow, is forced to find employment after her husband’s estate dwindles, and it’s either work or the poor house. It’s Edinburgh, Scotland, 1895, and her choices for employment are slim. So like many gentlewomen, she becomes a chaperone for brother and sister Jamie and Alice Arrol, who are about to embark on their Grand Tour of the continent. The young people are social climbers, but naive–and, to Cait’s sensibilities, a little gauche in their overreaching. Jamie and Alice have any number of mishaps, spending more money than they should, eluding their chaperone when they shouldn’t, and sometimes falling in with the wrong company.

But the real story is Cait’s–and how she came to love one of the engineers working on the tower, Emile Nouguier. Although immediately attracted to him, Cait resists his attention even as she looks forward to their time together. Young Jamie sets his sights on Emile for his sister’s suitor (Alice is in France to find a husband, after all) and Cait serves as chaperone, all the while fighting her affection for Emile. You won’t need a spoiler alert, but this is fiction geared towards women readers–and most won’t be disappointed in the ending.

For this reader (who took German in high school, much to her grandmother’s consternation: “French is the language of literature, Laurie!”) I found the place names a bit overwhelming. And there were a lot considering the story was set around the building of the spectacular monument. I also realized I knew very little about the Eiffel Tower. But learn, I did. I had no idea the Tower had levels with restaurants and shops–I thought it was like a giant erector set project. I didn’t know that Eiffel’s company also had a hand in building the Panama Canal, until the French effort went bankrupt. Like I say, it’s a good book that will push a reader into a little research to find out more about the characters and events. And that’s just what I did.

To Capture What We Cannot Keep is written in the tradition of other historical novels which fictionalize the lives of famous people, so readers of The Aviator’s Wife and Circling the Sun will not be disappointed.

Why I’ll remember All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Scribner

all the light we cannot seeIt won the Pulitzer. Was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Spent 118 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. Wiser readers than I have written more eloquently about Anthony Doerr’s magnificent All the Light We Cannot See, so there’s no reason to write what you can read elsewhere, like here and here. But it’s a World War II novel that I’ll long remember, and not just for the beautiful writing. Here’s why.

Doerr showed us characters who are usually vilified–Nazis–as people who loved and sacrificed and suffered. Werner Pfennig wasn’t one-dimensional. He had  dreams, and the Nazis recognized his gifts and provided him with a means to develop them. He had doubts, but time and place carried him into waters he had no power to fight against. Werner used the cards dealt him, but he wasn’t a player.

And so I can come to better understand the ones who have been labeled our enemies today. Most Americans with open hearts already acknowledge that it’s not Muslims we should condemn, but the regimes that promote terrorism and distort Islam. But in coming to know Werner Pfennig, I must acknowledge that there are young Muslim men and women who, even while seeming to accept (who knows, maybe even carry out) violent acts of terrorism, are also just cogs in a wheel over which they have little control.

That’s powerful.

I’ll also remember how Marie-Laure continued on. Whatever her circumstances. While her world shrank for a time after her blindness and again after her escape to Saint-Malo, it eventually opened again for her–even wider. And when she suffered the deprivations of war, when her life was in danger, she persevered. Put one foot in front of the other. In the horrors of war, Marie-Laure found opportunity.

How spineless we twenty-first century Americans can be.

I’m guessing that those of you who have read All the Light also carry it with you long after reading. Those of you who haven’t read it yet, must.