Book reviews from The Free Lance-Star.
NOVEL WEAVES A PATCHWORK OF ENCHANTMENT
BY ELIZABETH RABIN
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
RUSSIA is an easy country to romanticize. The great empire straddles both East and West, never quite knowing where it fits in. The spectacular fall of the Romanov house alone has been the subject of many books.
“Enchantments,” Kathryn Harrison’s newest novel, is the latest book to play with the last days of Nicholas II’s reign. After the death of the czarina’s adviser, Grigory Rasputin, his daughters become wards of the royal family, a position that grows more unstable as the Bolshevik Red Army fights to take control of the Russian government. The czarina, Alexandra, asks the eldest daughter, Masha, to take her father’s place as mystical healer at the bedside of her ailing son, Alexei. Masha assents with some trepidation, since she believes she has no special powers. Yet together with Alexei, the pair tries to create a safe haven in a world falling apart around them through stories and shared histories.
Harrison has clearly done her research. Through Masha’s eyes, Harrison is able to chronicle the journey of the Russian citizens who emigrated to the unsympathetic surrounding countries in order to survive. Masha’s stories are truly captivating, and the reader will be amazed at the amount of effort she uses to keep her worlds alive beside the chaotic reality she and Alexei find themselves in.
While Masha’s and Alexei’s storytelling serves as a timeless separate world, the transitions between fantasy and reality are sometimes rough, causing readers to backtrack through the pages in order to orient themselves. Masha is
a clearly defined character, often causing one to wonder who Matryona Rasputina was in real life. The same cannot be said about Alexei, who carries the other half of the story. His dialogue is formal, and the ambiguous romance between Alexei and Masha struggles to spark.
Perhaps the romance between the two characters is weak because Harrison is wary of writing herself onto treacherous ground. Harrison, best known for the memoir “The Kiss,” also had a charismatic father who proclaimed himself a man of God yet was very much defined by earthly pleasures. There is a familiar triangle between Masha, her father and her patient that the story struggles to ignore.
The details in “Enchantments” will ensnare any reader with a passing interest in the Romanovs. If anything, the amazing stories spun by Matryona Rasputina will give readers permission to daydream themselves into the romantic Russia we all fantasize about.
Elizabeth Rabin is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania County.
By Kathryn Harrison
(Random House, $27, 336 pp.)
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