Varara is a Polish daughter of a bookbinder. Her father journeyed to the Russian court because he felt there would be more opportunities there. Her father’s work was renowned and attracted the notice of the Empress Elizabeth herself. But when family fortune leaves young Varvara an orphan, she seeks refuge at the Palace. She’s taken in first as one of the imperial seamstresses, but with stubbornness and a little luck, she works her way up to becoming one of Elizabeth’s “Tongues,” or little spies.
And then Princess Sophie comes to court, a princess from Anhalt-Zerbst, to become engaged to Crown Prince Peter, a selfish, strange little boy. Young Sophie is rennamed Catherine by the Empress, and seems completely out of her element and powerless at the decadent Russian court. Varvara and Catherine are both tossed about, manipulated by others–until they start to fight back through knowledge of their own, so Sophie can one day become Catherine the Great.
Of course, there’s much more to it that that. Every character uses another. Character interactions have more layers than a matryoshka doll. It’s a slow novel, meandering its way through Varvara’s life from when she’s a young girl to a cynical, world-wise mother. It’s engaging and well-drawn, and I loved it.
The prose is lush and lyrical, full of metaphor and delightful turns of phrases. 18th century Russia comes to life through the pages. I knew next to nothing about Russian history, specifically in the 18th century. And it’s full of sickly-sweet smiles with people holding knives behind their backs, and just as twisted as any other royal court.
After finishing this book, I wished to learn more about Catherine, and so I listened to these two podcasts by Stuff You Missed in History Class. However, I caution not to listen to it before you’re read the book if you don’t know much about Catherine, as it quite obvious contains “spoilers.”