Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: Catherine (The Volga River Chronicles)

About the Book:
"You look astonishingly pretty," admits Johanna when Sophia steps out of her bedroom dressed in Ulrika's magnificent gown. Sophia is stunned, halting in mid-step. This is rare praise from her cold mother, so she must, indeed, look very good. At Frederick's side during the elaborate court dinner, Sophia shines and sparkles with youth and wit. The monarch is very pleased with his choice. Indeed, he is so enamored with the girl that he opens his purse to outfit mother and daughter, both woefully deficient in material matters appropriate for court life.

So begins the transformation of Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst into Catherine the Great of Russia. The personal and professional triumphs and tribulations of this remarkable woman are retold by Sigrid Weidenweber, whose research into the life of Catherine reveals a new perspective on Catherine, from the inside out. Sigrid portrays with heartfeld understanding what it was like to have been such a major European political and military, social and cultural figure during the eighteenth century.

My Comments:
When I say "Russian novel" what comes to your mind?  Do you picture a thick book filled with a huge cast of characters with names you can hardly remember because they are so foreign sounding?  Do you think of pages of descriptions of places of which you've rarely heard?  Do you think of political intrigue, romance, hatred, death, and even love?  While not written by a Russian, this book has all those characteristics and is set  in Russia and is about one of Russia's greatest rulers, Catherine the Great.  

It is the first book in a trilogy about the Volga Germans.  The short version of "Who are the Volga Germans?" is that they were German colonists attracted to Russia in the late 1700's by Catherine,who wanted to populate  a frontier as a way to keep enemies out of Russia.  My grandmother was a Volga German as was Lawrence Welk, who those somewhat older than me used to watch on TV. When offered this trilogy, I jumped at the chance to read about "my people".  

I'll be honest, I didn't finish this book about Catherine.  It is long.  There are a lot of details that don't seem to add to the story (and which I don't remember well enough that any lights would go off if they become important later).  The story was told in the third person, present tense which I found awkward.  There was not much dialogue--we were told things happened, we didn't necessarily see them unfold, or hear what people were saying.  Here is a sample paragraph:
Catherine has made it a habit to stop at the home of Princess Dashkova on her way back to Oranienbaum.  They enjoy their own spirited exchanges as if they are exotic, spicy gifts.  They are both avid readers of odd assortments of literature; philosophers, linguists,artists, politicians, and liberal causes intrigue them; and adoring Voltaire, they can indulge in seemingly endless topics of interest.  They seriously debate the Emancipation of women and an end to serfdom.  In the villages, places they see mostly on outings in their fancy carriages or sleighs, they have seen drunken muzhiks chase their wives in an attempt to assault them.  They have heard the horrid tales of mutilated, starved children, and of landowners whipping and torturing their serfs in ways they would not treat their hunting dogs.  Moments later, they discuss the need for good Russian schools, universities, libraries, and museums, and the people they know being able to help implement their dreams.  
I've read about one fourth of the book and I'm going to skip the rest of it.  I'm going to read the second volume that is supposed to be more directly about the Volga Germans, but I'll admit that the subject matter and the lack of novels about the Volga Germans are the only reasons I'm giving it a try.

To say something nice about the book/author, the book begins with an extensive chronology of Russian history,which does help the reader follow the events in the book.  Sigrid Weidenweber has obviously done her homework to learn about Catherine and her world.

This post is part of a blog tour, and I encourage you to read some of the other reviews which are more positive than mine, particularly if you are a fan of historical fiction.

I'd like to thank the author for sending me a complimentary review copy.  I was not obligated to write a  positive review.

1 comment:

  1. I love historical fiction and this sounds like it would be very interesting. I'm one of those who grew up watching Lawrence Welk on Saturday nights with the bubbles floating through the air and the lovely singers. His shows were always clean and innocent and pleasant entertainment. Perhaps I can get this book on interlibrary loan.


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