STARRED REVIEW
April 2018

A Romanov history

By Ariel Lawhon
Review by

Ariel Lawhon’s two previous historical novels delved into the Jazz Age in New York City (The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress) and the final flight of the Hindenburg in 1937 (Flight of Dreams). In her latest, she imagines the last months of Russia’s royal Romanov family—Czar Nicholas II; his wife, Empress Alexandra; their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia; and their son, Alexey—following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

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Ariel Lawhon’s two previous historical novels delved into the Jazz Age in New York City (The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress) and the final flight of the Hindenburg in 1937 (Flight of Dreams). In her latest, she imagines the last months of Russia’s royal Romanov family—Czar Nicholas II; his wife, Empress Alexandra; their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia; and their son, Alexey—following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Lawhon focuses on Anastasia, the youngest daughter, illuminating those harrowing months in late 1917 and 1918, beginning when the imperial palace is taken over by the revolutionary army. The family is put under house arrest, limited to the few rooms not occupied by soldiers, and their activities are closely monitored. Lawhon recounts their haunting journey east into Siberia by train, when the girls, including Anastasia, are raped. The family is housed in an abandoned army barracks in the “godforsaken outpost” of Tobolsk. Their lives become even more unbearable when the Red Guard takes command, their mission to cruelly punish the family for their former excessive lifestyle. From Tobolsk they are sent further east to the town of Ekaterinburg, where, in July 1918, the whole family is executed by firing squad.

Or—did Anastasia somehow miraculously escape the massacre? Threaded in and out of the chapters recounting the last days of Anastasia and her family is the story of a young woman who, two years later, is pulled from a canal in Berlin and claims to be Anastasia Romanov. She has scars that could be from bullet wounds, and she bears a remarkable resemblance to the young Romanov duchess. Those who refuse to believe her story give her the name Anna Anderson and see her merely as a fortune seeker. Lawhon’s extensive research traces Anna’s steps backward from 1970, when a Hamburg court determines that her claim is “not proven.” In the years leading up to this moment, she is institutionalized, interviewed by Anastasia’s family and contemporaries, and romanticized in plays and movies.

The truth of her own sad story is revealed only at the conclusion of Lawhon’s mesmerizing saga, which encompasses over 50 years and travels from revolutionary Russia and interwar France to the United States in the 1970s.

Though DNA evidence has finally proven what happened to the Romanov family, Lawhon’s labyrinthine tale remains fascinating to the end.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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I Was Anastasia

I Was Anastasia

By Ariel Lawhon
Doubleday
ISBN 9780385541695

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