I knew, in an incredibly general way, the story of the Romanovs. I remember seeing a documentary about Anastasia in particular, and Anna Andersen, when I was young and being absolutely captivated by it. I vaguely remember checking out a book about the family from the library, but I think the most I actually did was look at the pictures, because I really knew nothing beyond the mystery of Anastasia's and Aleksei's disappearance--except that I remembered Aleksei's hemophilia. I loved the cartoon musical, the one with Meg Ryan. And of course I heard about the 2007 discovery and identification of charred remains, which resolved the entire mystery that had so compelled me as a child.
So I thought, with that put to bed, there wouldn't be much else to interest me. I was pretty sure, when I picked up this book, that I wouldn't finish it. I always assume I'll be bored by historical fiction (and yeah, okay, I've been really, really wrong before, but I always seem to forget that), and why would I care about long-dead Russian imperialists?
But, oh, wow. I cared. I loved every word of this book. It was difficult at first, to keep the girls straight. I kept flipping back to the front to see who was who, which was the oldest, how old were they all anyway? And then the Russian glossary, which I had to refer to every couple of pages--but even so, after 25 pages, I knew I wasn't going to be returning this book to the library unread. And after page one hundred, I never did bother to flip back to the front. A novel told in four voices, and I spent the last three hundred plus pages absolutely confident in their separate voices. I could have told them apart without even looking at the chapter headings, or the pictures that accompanied them. They were distinct, and alive, and I looked up some information about the Bolshevik revolution because I had to know, but I avoided information specifically about their lives post-Revolution because...I didn't want to spoil myself? And I knew, of course I knew! what was going to happen to these girls, to their brother, to their parents, but my heart was pounding for them anyway.
I have no doubt--well, because I've read the author's blog, and because of the extensive "Selected Bibliography" in the back--that this book was meticulously researched, that the girls' voices were as authentic as could be possible, and...this book is just so understated, but not at all in a way that's even close to boring. It's just, with a plot like this--a family imprisoned for years before being executed, a tsar being overthrown, a revolution of the people--there might have been so much drama. And there wasn't. There was tension, yes, a thousand times yes, sorrow, yes, and fear. But no screaming and wrenching of hair, no fainting or begging. It was quiet and dignified and entirely heartbreaking.
I'm actually in awe, here. This is a book I'll be thinking about for a long, long time. And there will be much Wikepedia'ing and probably some Alexander Palace Time Machine-ing in my future.