March 2012

Love found at a Russian empire’s end

By Kathryn Harrison
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Perhaps best known for her provocative memoirs, Kathryn Harrison triumphantly returns to her historical fiction roots with Enchantments, the sweeping (and wholly imagined) story of love between two unlikely allies: Maria Rasputin, daughter of “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin, and Tsarevich Alexei Romanov, would-be heir to the Russian empire. As with her previous novels Poison and The Binding Chair, Harrison takes a particular moment in time and brings it to stunning life.

It is 1917 in St. Petersburg when a diver pulls Grigori Rasputin’s battered body from the Neva River. That much is historical fact, but afterwards Harrison’s story becomes an alternate history: In the wake of their father’s brutal death, Maria—Masha—Rasputin and her sister, Varya, are sent to live with the Romanovs in the royal palace. Before his murder, Rasputin served as a healer to Alexei—here called Alyosha—Romanov, and the Tsar and Tsarina feel compelled to care for his children after his passing.

Tsarina Alexandra has other motives, too: Alyosha suffers from hemophilia, and she hopes Masha might care for her son as Grigori did. But when the Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest not two months after the Rasputin sisters arrive, something entirely different happens. Masha and Alyosha become friends and confidants, distracting each other from the world outside and Alyosha’s condition with stories of their families’ histories, their hopes for the future and the creation of a rich fantasy world only the two of them share. Masha and Alyosha begin to fall in love, but before that love can be fully explored, they are separated—first by distance, then by death.

Harrison is strongest when she writes about Masha—not just as Rasputin’s daughter, but as a living, breathing, feeling young woman in an impossible situation. The relationship between Masha and Alyosha is complicated, confusing and often all-consuming, as most young loves are.

Much has been written about Rasputin and the Romanovs, but Harrison brings her unique narrative perspective to Enchantments, re-imagining history—and a love story—in a completely new way.

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By Kathryn Harrison
Random House
ISBN 9781400063475

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