Wednesday, December 23, 2020

I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

I Was Anastasia
by Ariel Lawhon
Read by Jane Collingwood and Sian Thomas
Published March 2018 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Russia, July 17, 1918: Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.

Germany, February 17, 1920: A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal in Berlin. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia. 

Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson. As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened. With a brilliantly crafted dual narrative structure, Lawhon wades into the most psychologically complex and emotionally compelling territory yet: the nature of identity itself. 

The question of who Anna Anderson is and what actually happened to Anastasia Romanov creates a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents. This thrilling story is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.

My Thoughts:
Lawhon winds her twin stories - Anastasia and Anna - through time. Anastasia's story, told in the first person, moves forward from the days just before her family is removed from was removed from their palace and exiled in Siberia. Anna's story travels back in time, from 1970 when she is awaiting the decision of a German ruling on her identity, to 1920, when she was pulled from a canal in Germany. It's an interesting structure, made a bit difficult to follow (especially when you're listening to it) by the backward skips in time in Anna's parts of the book; sometimes Lawhon skips back four months, then six months. But it also worked to bring the two story lines together at the crucial point where we learn if Anastasia truly did survive the mass execution of her family and their servants. 

Almost as soon as the Romanovs were assassinated, rumors began swirling that Anastasia, the youngest daughter, had miraculously survived. Anna Anderson was not the only woman who claimed to be Anastasia and there was certainly a willingness among many to believe the notion that Anastasia had somehow not only survived the basement where the family was killed but also managed to escape Russia. For decades there were no remains to prove or disprove the stories, which only fed the rumors. I've read several books now about this time in Russian history; and even though I knew that reality of life for the people under the rule of the czars, it's hard not to buy into the romance of Anastasia's survival. I mean, who doesn't love Don Bluth's animated movie Anastasia, Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brenner in Anastasia, or the spectacle that is Nicolas and Alexandra, starring Laurence Olivier? 

If you don't already know how this is all going to end, please don't spoil it for yourself by looking it up. You will find yourself wanting to believe that Anastasia survived; Lawhon makes her such an appealing character and the brutality of what was done to their family so heartbreaking. Even knowing the truth didn't stop me from being surprised by the way Lawhon brings her story to a conclusion. 

I picked this book for my book club to read in January, hoping that there would be plenty to talk about and I am not disappointed on that score. It's not a perfect book but I'm always impressed with Lawhon's research and her ability to know what to include in her stories and I suggest that readers read the author's notes to see why Lawhon choose to tell her story the way she did. I also can't recommend the audiobook highly enough; both readers are excellent. This was just the book I needed, a mystery rooted in history. 

1 comment: