The Winter Palace (Catherine 1) by Eva Stachniak
When Vavara, a young orphaned Polish girl, is brought to serve at Empress Elizabeth’s glittering, dangerous court in St Petersburg, she is schooled by the Chancellor himself in skills from lock-picking to love-making, learning above all else to stay silent – and listen. Soon, she is Elizabeth’s ‘tongue’ – her secret eyes and ears.
Then Sophie, a vulnerable young princess, arrives from Prussia as a prospective bride for Elizabeth’s heir. Set to spy on her by the Empress, Vavara soon becomes her friend and confidante, and helps her navigate the illicit seductions and the treacherous shifting allegiances of the court.But Sophie’s destiny is to become the notorious Catherine the Great. Are her ambitions more lofty and far-reaching than anyone suspected, and will she stop at nothing to achieve absolute power? (Goodreads)
Barbara, or Varvara in Russian, becomes to Russian court during the reign of Empress Elizabeth. Chancellor Bestuzhev trains her to be a spy (tongue) and after the Empress brings the future Catherine the Great, then called Sophie, to marry her nephew Peter, Varvara becomes part of her retinue. Catherine doesn’t have easy time in Russia and the two soon become close confidantes.
The book is called “a novel of Catherine the Great” but Catherine is not the main character and is absent most of the book. It tells more to us about Empress Elizabeth than Catherine and the book is told from a servants point of view. It would have been more interesting if there would have been also Catherine’s point of view.
I did like Varvara however so in that sense I didn’t mind that she was the narrator, but it gave us only one side of the story which becomes clear at the end,
I’m not overly familiar with history of Russia so I can’t say anything about the accuracy but there was couple of things that bugged me. There were few times that Catherine made these escapades to town or somewhere and nobody didn’t see? With all the spies and all? And how Varvara seemed to be just little too familiar with Catherine and Elizabeth and her knowledge on pretty much everything.
I would have liked to read more about the relationship between Catherine and Peter, what really happened then. Peter was told to be real nutty but we don’t really see it. Also I don’t think it was good thing to remove Varvara off from the court for seven years while anything didn’t really happened in her life during that time.
I liked Varvara as a character but I think it would have worked better if told from Catherine’s point of view.
Published: Doubleday (2012)