Two women’s lives collide when a priceless Russian artifact comes to light.
Tanya Kagan, a rising specialist in Russian art at a top New York auction house, is trying to entice Russia’s wealthy oligarchs to bid on the biggest sale of her career, The Order of Saint Catherine, while making sense of the sudden and unexplained departure of her husband.
As questions arise over the provenance of the Order and auction fever kicks in, Reyn takes us into the world of Catherine the Great, the infamous 18th-century empress who may have owned the priceless artifact, and who it turns out faced many of the same issues Tanya wrestles with in her own life.
Suspenseful and beautifully written, The Imperial Wife asks whether we view female ambition any differently today than we did in the past. Can a contemporary marriage withstand an “Imperial Wife”?
Classic Russian literature is one of my newfound loves, but other than the bits of Napoleonic trivia I gleaned from War and Peace and the period surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, I know shockingly little about Russian history. I’ve heard of Catherine the Great, of course, but the details of her life and the reason she was considered great was an unanswered question. I was excited to pick this book, hoping it would at least temporarily sate my ever-growing curiosity about the magical mystery that is Russia.
Surprisingly, I found myself enjoying the current day story of Tanya much more than the historical aspect. Perhaps this stems from Sophie/Catherine’s sections being written in third-person compared to the first-person of Tanya’s story. The high-end nature of Tanya’s career juxtaposed with her own humdrum living situation and the unexplained tension between her and her husband Carl provided a much more intriguing mixture of conflict than the politics of 18th-century royal matchmaking. I also appreciated the post-Soviet attitudes and ideas that inundated Tanya’s story.
The writing is overall beautiful, although the frequent use of sentence fragments made the editor inside me twitch at times. Reyn is clearly a skilled writer and painted a delicate, detailed picture of both intersecting plotlines.
The reason for the 1.5 star deduction–The pacing was slow, especially in the beginning, and I did not feel connected or sympathetic to either of the main characters. I can understand why Catherine acted as she did, given her own situation and the time, but Tanya’s actions revealed at the end–SPOILER rewriting her husband’s entire manuscript without his permission and then presenting it to him as a present END SPOILER–are unthinkably selfish. It was an intriguing story, but I wished there was some positive emotional connection made with at least one of the main characters.
If you enjoy historical and women’s fiction, intersecting plotlines, and Russian influences, I recommend that you pick up a copy of this book. Despite the issues I had with it, it’s a beautifully written story and definitely on my list of top 10 reads of 2016.
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.