Russian royal history fascinates me. Earlier this year I read From Splendour to Revolution: Romanov Women 1847-1928 and before that there were biographies of Nicholas and Alexandra (separate and together) as well as Catherine the Great.
So safe to say that when I saw The Secret Daughter of the Tsar at the library it was a pretty easy decision to make to take that home with me.
Jennifer Laam’s premise is that there was actually a fifth Grand Duchess, born when the monarchy really needed a son. So the Dowager Empress Marie spirited the child away, told Alexandra the baby was dead, the rest of the world that Alexandra had imagined the whole thing, and hoped that the next baby would actually be male.
The novel follows three women: Lena, a devoted servant of Empress Alexandra who knows all the secrets; Charlotte, a ballerina in 1940s Paris, forced to flee who knows nothing about any secrets; and Veronica, a present day academic in Russian history, working on a biography of Alexandra with a new angle who knows that there are secrets but has a lot of wrong information.
We go back and forth as the secret history unfolds and as the different women fill in pieces to the puzzle. Anything I’ve read about this book says that there is a crazy twist at the end. I’m not sure if it was because I was aware of the twist or because the twist is about as well hidden as an elephant in the shower, but I knew what the twist was after about 40 pages. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the book – I did. I just wasn’t surprised.
I think I liked the sections that featured Lena the best; her sections were the most interesting, historically speaking (I especially enjoyed Laam’s characterization of the Dowager Empress Marie) but Lena was probably the most well developed character. She wants a better life, she wants to protect the Empress from malicious gossip and her brother from making poor life decisions. I felt like Charlotte was kind of a footnote to the bigger picture (even though she was arguably the crux of the entire story) and Veronica…well I’m not usually a fan of a female character that gets all stupid when a man is in the room. Her breath kept hitching, she kept remembering the feel of this guy’s lips on her face – she got a giant “ugh” from me.
But for all that, when I was reading, I was lost in the story. If you can get past some of its flaws, it’s an enjoyable little read.