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Review: The Secret Daughter of the Tsar

Review: The Secret Daughter of the Tsar

Title: The Secret Daughter of the Tsar
Author: Jennifer Laam
Published: 2013
Length: 344 pages

My star rating: ★ ★ ★

Alix. Forgive me. We’ll keep her safe. We’ll protect your fifth daughter.

Lena is a teenage servant to the Russian imperial family who finds favor with Empress Alexandra. She soon finds herself caught up in Alexandra’s desperation to provide her husband with a son and heir after the birth of their fourth daughter, Anastasia in 1901.

Charlotte is a ballerina living in fear of the Nazis in 1941 Paris with her son Laurent. When a German officer comes looking for her claiming she may call herself “grand duchess.” After her friend tells her that her parents can explain everything, Charlotte makes a mad dash for the countryside with her estranged husband.

Veronica is a present-day Russian historian living in Los Angeles, where she struggles to finish a monograph on Empress Alexandra. She meets an attorney who claims to be the heir apparent to the Russian throne and begins to see an opportunity to revive her flagging career—and mend her broken heart.

Note: This review is (relatively) spoiler-free. I have included some hidden spoilers in my Goodreads review.

Almost as soon as I saw this book on Marya‘s list, I saw it at the library, and I had to check it out. Even knowing it might well be crap (I’ll admit, my first reaction to the title was “Nicholas would never have cheated on Alexandra!”), the title intrigued me. I’m a sucker for “AU” Romanov fiction, and it’s burned me before.

I was pleasantly surprised by this one, though. Sure, the premise is far-fetched, but a lot less so than the idea that any of the Romanov children might have made it out of Yekaterinburg—then out of Russia—alive. In fact, it has a decent historical foundation. There was a three-year gap between the births of the youngest imperial children, Grand Duchess Anastasia and the longed-for Tsarevich Alexei. During that time, Alexandra had an incident which may have been a “phantom” pregnancy, or possibly a miscarriage or stillbirth. Jennifer Laam uses this period of uncertainty for her fictional scenario, and I thought it worked pretty well—as fiction, of course. (There actually was a woman who claimed to be the fifth grand duchess, and this seems to have been Laam’s inspiration.)

I liked going back and forth between time periods, though I found Charlotte and Veronica more compelling than Lena, whose only purpose was to be a sort of window into the Romanovs’ personal lives. Given Lena’s closeness to Alexandra, I also wish we had seen more of Nicholas.

Charlotte definitely had the most interesting story, maybe because of the Nazi element—they do add excellent dramatic tension to a tale. Just ask Steven Spielberg. Indiana Jones wasn’t the same without them! She also had the most believable motives, I felt, given that she had a three-year-old son to protect. As for Veronica, she did come across as slightly…neurotic? Paranoid? She was marginally more sympathetic than she was annoying, but it was a close-run thing. She had skeletons in her closet, but we all do—she never acted like she was desperate to finish her research and in so doing, to save her job. I also didn’t appreciate that Laam made her the stereotypically “weird” and technology-shy academic. Historians don’t all live under rocks, and sometimes they do have social lives (I swear)!

But the overall plot, especially divided between the three as it was, drove everything forward nicely. I felt Laam wrote the mystery nicely. The fact that Alexandra gave birth to a fifth daughter was obvious pretty early on. Everything else, however, she did a good job at making unclear enough to lend the story suspense. (Of course, some people probably figured everything out immediately, but I’m just not that quick when it comes to these things.)

One of Laam’s main sources was Carolly Erickson’s biography, Alexandra: The Last Tsarina, which helps explain her kid-gloved treatment of her in the narrative. That is the other complaint I have about this novel: the Dowager Empress Marie, Nicholas’ mother, was deliberately portrayed in an unflattering light in order to make her daughter-in-law look better.

As someone who took many Russian and Eastern European history classes in college and whose advisor was a Soviet historian, I found this bit good for a laugh:

Russian historians were like three-legged puppies, pitied but seldom adopted because the upkeep was too expensive. She imagined standing under the freeway with a sign: Will explain the dynamics of imperial Russian court politics for food. (14)

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, despite its romance novel-worthy title, was pretty okay as Romanov fiction goes. It boasts an intriguing premise*, decent writing and characters, and fast-paced plot. It’s worth giving a shot for anyone with an interest in the last imperial family.

* This isn’t to say I think the premise—or the claim of Suzanna de Graaff—is plausible in real life, just that it makes an interesting and exciting fictional story.

Also: This is the beginning of my “National Novel Reading Month,” since I never fail to fail spectacularly at NaNoWriMo! | 1/15 novels

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