Thursday, March 1, 2012

REVIEW: Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

 Synopsis (from Amazon): St. Petersburg, 1917. After Rasputin’s body is pulled from the icy waters of the Neva River, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Masha, is sent to live at the imperial palace with Tsar Nikolay and his family—including the headstrong Prince Alyosha. Desperately hoping that Masha has inherited Rasputin’s miraculous healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks her to tend to Aloysha, who suffers from hemophilia, a blood disease that keeps the boy confined to his sickbed, lest a simple scrape or bump prove fatal.
Two months after Masha arrives at the palace, the tsar is forced to abdicate, and Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest. As Russia descends into civil war, Masha and Alyosha grieve the loss of their former lives, finding solace in each other’s company. To escape the confinement of the palace, they tell stories—some embellished and some entirely imagined—about Nikolay and Alexandra’s courtship, Rasputin’s many exploits, and the wild and wonderful country on the brink of an irrevocable transformation. In the worlds of their imagination, the weak become strong, legend becomes fact, and a future that will never come to pass feels close at hand.

My thoughts: Enchantments is an imaginative and markedly different take on the story of the murder of the Mad Monk Rasputin and the downfall of the Romanov family.  In Harrison's novel the reader is asked to consider how the history would have unfolded if Rasputin's daughters Masha and Varya went to live with the Romanovs as wards after the death of their eccentric father.  The story unfolds through the viewpoint of the eldest daughter Masha who develops a bond with the Tsarevich (referred to as Aloysha here) at the behest of the Tsarina who believes Masha may possess the same healing powers her father did.  While this turns out to be untrue she does help young Alyosha in her own right by comforting him during his painful episodes caused by his hemophilia with her wildly inventive stories about such topics as the imagined adventures of her father and what the courtship of the Tsar and Tsarina must have been like.  Masha is a talented spinner of tales and while some of her stories incorporate more fantastical elements (flying carpets, a literal cloud that follows the Tsarina...) they are also amusing.  

I think the element of the book I enjoyed the most was the more intimate glimpses of Rasputin (spiritually gifted but maybe not so crazy?) the Tsar Nicholas (a man clearly more comfortable soldiering than ruling), the Tsarina (devout woman and constant worrier), and Aloysha (wanting to experience as much of life as possible and frustrated with his inability to do so because of his disease).  While the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia make appearances, in Enchantments they are not a focal point of the story.  It was hard to read of the horrible treatment of this family in the year leading up to their horrendous deaths.

I thought Enchantments was beautifully written and would definitely consider it literary historical fiction.  Despite the wonderful writing style I did have a few issues with the main one being the direction the book took with the relationship between Aloysha and Masha.  I really enjoyed the build up of the friendship between the two but had a hard time when the author tried to move the relationship beyond friendship.  I liked both characters a great deal but it was always in the back of my mind that while this was supposed to be occurring the Tsarevich would have only been 13 years old so it (and subsequent events in the same vein) were a little hard for me to believe.  Also, it should be noted this is Masha's story and as such the story follows her beyond her year with the Romanovs.  I thought this aspect of the story during the latter half of the book was not as interesting and while it does tie in eventually with the events in the first half it seemed like the pacing slowed down quite a bit here.  For those that like their historical fiction to be as accurate as possible the book does follow the demise of Rasputin and the ordeal and end of the Romanovs accurately but it does take license in other areas.  Many parts of the book require you to put aside what you know and imagine what could have been but if you are comfortable doing this, there is a decent story to be had here.

This book will be released on March 6th.

 This book was provided to me from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


  1. Great. I just got a copy of this from Amazon Vine.

  2. I'm always on the lookout for historical lit too. Hope the audio version comes out soon. easier on the eyes.

  3. This sounds interesting, even if you do have to suspend disbelief a bit. Nice review.

  4. Love the sounds of this novel. I cannot get enough historical lit.