Let’s get something straight right off the bat here: I hated this book, more than any other Royal Diaries book that’s out there. I hated it when I read it as a teenager and I hated it now.
Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess, Russia, 1914, Carolyn Meyer, 2004.
I wouldn’t go so far to say that it’s bad, exactly. Not in the sense that it’s a poorly-written pile of dreck or anything. It’s perfectly competently written, it just completely fails at walking the line between innocently naïve and foreshadowing, and tone-deafness. However, part of the reason that I disliked it so strongly was because I listened to the audiobook version of this, read by Rene Raudman. Now, she is a great audiobook reader, and I don’t know if it was intentional, but she manages to imbue Anastasia with a sort of slightly whiny, over-privileged tone that really just creates this sense of snottiness that feels indicative of nobility.
And what’s more, this is a terrible cover. Poor Anastasia looks like a melted doll. This was reissued a couple of years ago but that cover is even worse, so I’m choosing to pretend it never happened.
Now, I think this was an interesting choice, since the only other Royal Diaries book that is poised right on the brink of revolution is Marie Antoinette, but that one feels to me to be slightly less tone-deaf. In this one, though, Anastasia is so focused on how awesome her dad is and how nobody could possibly think that anything other than absolute imperial rule would ever, ever work, that it ends up flying right past “interesting foreshadowing” and heading into “hit you over the head with it” territory. The thing is, the one thing absolutely everybody knows about Anastasia is that she was part of the last imperial family of Russia and grew up in magnificent splendour, and that she was executed with her family following the revolution of 1917, and that she was rumoured to have escaped. But while Marie Antoinette’s book is handled with some grace and real understanding, this novel just comes across as….head-turningly naïve. I understand it as a stylistic choice, but I think it’s a slightly strange one and I don’t know how well it comes through.
The other choice I dislike here (and I will get to the review, really) is that it covers such a long period of time. It begins in 1914 and goes all the way until 1918, but rather than achieving this through long gaps, there’s a zillion two-line entries that don’t serve to advance the plot. It’s just whining. But we will get to that.
So as the novel begins, we’re in January of 1914 (see what I mean?), and Anastasia is characteristically complaining about a ball she had to go to with her older sisters, Olga, Tatiana, and Masha. She dislikes studying, and she dislikes having to go to grand events with her grandmother and sisters, and she dislikes doing much of anything other than simply having a good time. But in the course of one of her “good times” of writing a play, her younger brother Alexei gets overexcited and hurts himself—he has hemophilia, which means that any time he bruises himself, the injured part swells and he’s in horrible pain.
Anastasia’s mother is very devoted to “Father Grigory,” whom of course the rest of the world knows as Rasputin. She was initially drawn to him because he prays over Alexei when he’s sick, and it seems to help, but the other doctors to the royal family just loathe Rasputin and think he’s a fraud who’s just trying to get ahead. Here we have one of the key conflicts: Anastasia’s mother, the tsarina, is relatively infirm and devoted to her family, but adores Rasputin, while everyone else thinks Rasputin is a gross piece of work.
Anastasia delves into her sister’s diaries, and finds that Olga is worried about their father, since he seems to be worried lately. As he should be, because there is growing unrest in the country and in general with the rule of the tsars. And throughout the first good section of the novel, it shows why—it’s just one lovely thing after another. Balls, parties, beautiful gowns and jewels, a trip to their palace on the Black Sea for Easter, fresh flowers in the dead of winter from the greenhouses, Faberge Easter eggs crusted in jewels, and so on. It really is enough to make you want to revolt. Even Anastasia’s complaints about the “peasant food” her father makes them eat come off as whiny, as does her complaint that her birthday is boring (she gets “only” a diamond and a silver music box).
That summer, of course, the Archduke Ferdinand is shot in Sarajevo, and shortly thereafter the tsar begins preparing for war. The Russian people are crazy with excitement and pride, and Anastasia’s mother and two oldest sisters begin to train as nurses (which makes Anastasia crazy because she isn’t allowed to, and has to go on with her studies as usual). Here I’m going to stop to note that I think the pace of the book is completely bananas: according to my ebook, we’re exactly 50% through the book, and we’re still in September of 1914. So the entire first half of the book is nine months, and the second 50% of the book covers four YEARS. I think that is lopsided, to say the least, and it really shows as the second half drags on.
Cracks begin to show as the tsar spends the majority of his time away at Stavka, the military headquarters, and they begin to hear lots of rumbles of discontent for Anastasia’s mother because she is from Germany. The tempo begins to speed up as Anastasia writes shorter diary entries, more frequently spaced out. She notes that no matter what her mother says, she doesn’t like or trust Rasputin, and begins to wonder if it’s true what people say, that he has too much sway over the imperial family and is only looking out for himself. (While this is foreshadowing, it reads a bit like My First Foreshadowing for the preteen set.)
Then it gets boring. There’s nothing for Anastasia to do other than fret over her sisters and mother being able to nurse, fret over her father being far away at headquarters, and fret over how the war is going (hint for those who are not up to speed on their First World War history: slowly, bitterly, and very little actual progress). We blow through a year in a few pages, then another year in a few pages, with Anastasia noting Christmases and birthdays with the same reflection—ah, how things used to be! It’s a trifle dull, with nothing novel and interesting in it, until we get to December of 1916 when Anastasia’s aunt comes for a visit. Unfortunately, the reason for her visit is to try to convince the tsarina that Rasputin is evil and is leading the country down to ruin. And then shortly after Anastasia’s mother tells her to leave, Rasputin turns up dead by an assassin.
After the funeral, the family comes down with measles and the city of Petrograd is seized by revolutionaries, which Anastasia doesn’t fully understand. By March, her father has abdicated the crown, leaving the family bereft and unsure of what will happen next. They are put under arrest, and Anastasia is just constantly freaking out since no one bothers to explain anything to her, and it’s the only point in this book where I feel badly for her. She is afraid and doesn’t know what will happen, and their friends are arrested and the family is imprisoned and lonely and it is all quite awful.
After they spend the summer imprisoned, they’re packed off on a train to Siberia to stay in a little house prepared for them especially. Things get worse and worse—they’re confined to the house, restricted to their rations, and there’s discussion that they’ll be sent to Japan or Norway or even Britain. The tsar and tsarina are taken away, with Olga, and the other girls sew their jewels into their gowns and prepare for their next journey. The novel ends with Anastasia leaving her diary in the care of a trusted servant, and everyone knows what happens next—the imperial family is sent to the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg, and are executed that July.
Rating: C-/D+. Low rating for a Royal Diaries book! I know. But there are just so many problems with this book, starting with the fact that Anastasia never once comes across as an empathetic narrator that you want to see happy. I understand the concept that Meyer is going for, wealthy girl brought up in splendour and pomp who finds her world dashed to pieces, and I get the concept of an unlikable narrator, but I really don’t think this series is the appropriate place to deploy it. I know I keep comparing this book to Marie Antoinette, but Marie’s book allows her to come across as an innocent, naïve girl who is genuinely concerned about things, while Anastasia doesn’t seem to care. It’s frustrating to read. On top of that, the lopsided narrative structure makes the book extremely front-heavy and almost confusing, because if all the drama happens at the back end of the book, why so much focus on the first half? (Good question.) So all that taken into account, I have no choice but to give it a low and disappointing review.