Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller

The Lost Crown: A Novel of Romanov Russia
by Sarah Miller
June 14, 2011
Borrowed from Library
Amazon link
Grade: A-

Synopsis (from Publisher): Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. Like the fingers on a hand--first headstrong Olga; then Tatiana, the tallest; Maria the most hopeful for a ring; and Anastasia, the smallest. These are the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, grand duchesses living a life steeped in tradition and privilege. They are each on the brink of starting their own lives, at the mercy of royal matchmakers. The summer of 1914 is that precious last wink of time when they can still be sisters together--sisters that link arms and laugh, sisters that share their dreams and worries, and flirt with the officers of their imperial yacht.

But in a gunshot the future changes for these sisters and for Russia.

As World War I ignites across Europe, political unrest sweeps Russia. First dissent, then disorder, mutiny, and revolution. For Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, the end of their girlhood together is colliding with the end of more than they ever imagined.

At the same time hopeful and hopeless, naive and wise, the voices of these sisters become a chorus singing the final song of Imperial Russia. Impeccably researched and utterly fascinating, this novel by acclaimed author Sarah Miller recounts the final days of Imperial Russia with lyricism, criticism and true compassion.

Oh, this book.  I took over a week to finish it.  Not because it was bad, but because I was dreading the inevitable ending.  A novel about the Romanov princesses during World War I can not end well of course, so I read it in little bits and pieces, not wanting to finish it before I had to.

It’s a beautifully written account of the four girls, their closeness and their love for each other and their family even as the world around them absolutely shatters.  The lushness and vividness of Sarah Miller’s narrative brings Revolutionary Russia to life and makes the reader feel as if she might be the fifth sister, trapped with the rest of the family in their house arrests from Siberia to Ekaterinburg.  The story moves slowly, almost meditatively as it traces its way from the summer of 1914 through mid-1918 and may frustrate those who wish for more action or excitement.  There isn’t precisely a plot beyond the experiences of the girls, their relationship with their family, and their growing tension and fears for the future, but I didn’t feel the lack (and after all, it’s history.  That’s what happened - any additional action would feel shoehorned in and unnatural).

My major trouble with the book was the structure of the narrative.  Each sister traded off first person point of view chapters, and while each girl had a distinct personality and characteristics - that is to say, when interacting with her sisters it was usually readily apparent who was who.  But in the first person, one voice did not differ much from the others.  On one hand, one could say that’s indicative of just how close the sisters were, but on the other, it made it very difficult to read at times.  I don’t often pay attention to chapter headings, and even once I realised I needed to so I could know who ‘I’ is referring to, I often had to flip back pages to double check.  For that reason, I’m very glad I got the book from the library instead of buying it for my Kindle!  I did like being able to see through each girl’s eyes, but I think a different structure whether a third-person omniscient or choosing one sister as the narrator would have better served the book and the reader.

This book is about the bonds between sisters who have nothing else to hold onto, the ordinariness of a family that ruled a large part of the world, and how to live when circumstances can change overnight and nothing besides family can be counted upon.  It’s about how faith can sustain people and also act as a crutch (without Rasputin or Tsar Nicholas’ reliance on fate, what might have changed?).  It's about the blessings and burdens of hope.  And it’s about the horrors humans can put each other through in the name of politics or revenge or fear.

It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching book filled with lyrical prose, lovely dialogue, and well-researched history.  I’m very glad I read it, and I never, ever think I could put myself through reading it again. 

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