In her riveting debut novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte. Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her.
Lena, a servant in the imperial Russian court of 1902, is approached by the desperate Empress Alexandra. After conceiving four daughters, the Empress is determined to sire a son and believes Lena can help her. Once elevated to the Romanov’s treacherous inner circle, Lena finds herself under the watchful eye of the meddling Dowager Empress Marie.
Charlotte, a former ballerina living in World War II occupied Paris, receives a surprise visit from a German officer. Determined to protect her son from the Nazis, Charlotte escapes the city, but not before learning that the officer’s interest in her stems from his longstanding obsession with the fate of the Russian monarchy.
Then as Veronica's passion intensifies, and her search for the true heir to the throne takes a dangerous turn, the reader learns just how these three vastly different women are connected.
I was really drawn to the premise of this novel and the idea that a Romanov heir exists that is neither Anastasia or Alexei. The story begins with Veronica, a struggling professor attempting to write a biography of Empress Alexandra, who becomes involved with a man whose interest in the Romanovs matches her own. Orphaned as a young girl and raised by her grandmother, Veronica has always felt like an outsider within her large family, and later in her academic career. When she learns of the notion of a mysterious lost Romanov heir and a shadowy society devoted to restoring the heir to the throne, Veronica seizes the chance to take her book to the next level, and to learn more about Michael Karstadt, who may have ulterior motives in pursuing a romance with her. Entwined with Veronica's story are those of Lena and Charlotte, two women from different times who also play their parts in the mystery.
Lena, a trusted servant of Alexandra, gives us a glimpse into life behind closed doors in the imperial Russian court in 1902, where all was not sunshine and roses for the empress, who was desperate to provide her husband and his country with a male heir after the birth of four daughters. As the tsar's mother and brother and other disgruntled nobles circle around the empress, searching for weaknesses they can exploit, Lena rises to the defense of her beloved mistress. Forty years later, Charlotte, an aging dancer trapped in Nazi-occupied Paris, finds herself hunted by a high-ranking Nazi official for reasons she can't comprehend, and ends up on the run with her small son and estranged husband in a desperate attempt to reach sanctuary in Spain.
I loved the historical threads in Russia and France and the connection that was eventually revealed between the three women. Their stories all came together rather seamlessly and satisfyingly in the end, even if it was fairly easy to predict the outcome. Unfortunately, the present-day thread didn't work as well for me. I found the idea of restoring the Romanovs to the throne in the twenty-first century, in a Russia under Vladimir Putin's leadership, rather implausible, and much of the present-day story hinges on that. But I was able to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the story and the intense climactic moments.
While I enjoyed the story and the characters, the writing style was a bit disappointing. It lacks the elegance and resonance I associate with historical fiction. I also like a more subtle style of writing; I like to be able to read between the lines, to figure things out for myself--I don't like to have things spelled out for me and clues made obvious. But the book does get a big thumbs up for taking on the idea of a Romanov heir with a new twist and for flawlessly braiding together three separate stories in different time periods. The Secret Daughter of the Tsar doesn't quite live up to the standards of my favorite past/present novels from authors like Susanna Kearsley, but it is something different and ambitious in historical fiction, and I liked it enough to pick up the sequel when it comes out.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5
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