Back in 2009 I listened to this author’s debut novel, What Happened to Anna K— a retelling of Anna Karenina, but for some reason I failed to review it on my old blog. I do remember the story well and thought it was an “ok” first book. Fast forward to this past week and I’ve been, unknowingly till I looked for the cover photo, been listening to her second book. Interestingly, they have a few of the same minor problems. But more on that in a minute.
There is both a modern-day story and an historical one. Nasty, bitchy Tonya is married to a guy she sees as sort of a loser (well, her attitude says that!). She’s a big shot Russian Art expert at a swanky auction house in, where else? New York. Poor husband is desperately putting in years as an adjunct trying to get a tenured faculty position (good luck). His hopes are pinned to his novel on Catherine the Great’s ill-fated marriage to Peter the Great’s ridiculous son, also named Peter. (Talk about a loser! That guy never even consummated his marriage. I ask you!) Well, as you guessed, the novel’s subject is the historical story line.
While Tonya pats herself on the back for the utterly magnificent way she’s pulled herself up by her bootstraps. (No, wait! She’d surely verb it: bootstrapped her way up) from the life of a Russian Jewish immigrant child in Queens right to that posh auction house where Nigel bangs the gavel and says in tones appropriate for the Queen’s funeral, “sold.” Yes, she’s totally full of herself.
Then a Royal Order (those are the big shinny things or the little portraits that royals wear either on shoulder (most of the portraits) or on a ribbon around their neck or pinned to their jacket with a wide ribbon sash) appears on the market purportedly belonging to none other than……Catherine the Great herself! Imagine that! Naturally Tonya’s schlemiel of a hubby wants to see it. Being a bitch, Tonya says no. (And she wonders why he left her….. )
Well after a Russian Oligarch sucks up to her, takes her to Monaco and Moscow but doesn’t sleep with her because she is married (yeah, that stops them…..) then she decides to…… Well to say that would spoil it, wouldn’t it? Hint, hint, hint, but not a spoiler. Early on she whines that her husband “judges” people who play with ethics and morals. Can you believe it? Wow. That’s a hint, ok? But not a spoiler!
What I Liked
The premise was a decent one. Was the order real? A good fake? Should Oligarch A or Oligarch B get to buy it? Should it go back to Russian? To a museum?? I liked both Anna’s immigrant parents and her wealthy, WASP in-laws. The latter mostly because that’s two books in a row with WASP-y folks with Dutch Van Der Names. I like coincidences like this in my reading. The writing was decent and it kept me listening even if I did hurl abuse at the car stereo every time nasty Tonya was mentioned.
What I Didn’t Like
Beyond not liking Tonya, there are problems of word choice and editing. Just as she did in the Anna K book, the author gets a bit carried away and more than a tad pretentious with her word choices on occasion. My meager notes on Goodreads tell me that in Anna K it was “cordoroyed legs” and the word patois–used twice in too short of a page span.
In The Imperial Wife it began with “his trench was missing“… That was one such odd choice. I paused trying to make sense of this. Aha, his trench COAT. She says “his trench” twice in about a paragraph. Wouldn’t you say “his coat” or his “trench coat?” This just sounds odd to me. Would you say “his Chesterfield was missing?” for his Chesterfield style overcoat? No, you’d say “his coat was missing.” Unless he was missing more than one coat of different styles, perhaps.
He “maneuvered the wine into a glass“? That was fabulous. Here I thought you had to pour wine. “A suited doorman?” Did she mean “liveried?” Unwrapping sandwiches from parchment? Do people wrap sandwiches in PARCHMENT? Baker’s parchment PAPER is an expensive way to wrap a sandwich! Finally, there was my favorite– in one scene it was noted that they spoke English due to someone’s “nativity” oh please…. But she nailed it with “over-ripe breasts.” Perfect description–I could clearly see them.
Then there were two odd spots that I decided must be typos or editing fails–hard to tell since it was the audio version. In the first such phrase, one of the oligarchs apparently wanted to “be” a Romanov AND pretend that the END of the USSR never happened?? WT? Surely that would be that the USSR never happened?? Because if not, he’d have to be a Romanov who was really far down the line of succession to have survived. Even the ones who escaped didn’t seem to last long or have many heirs.
The second odd phrase concerned the problem of Catherine the Great being bored at court functions while waiting for the boy-emperor’s balls to drop. People of “at least 30 years old” are invited, but they are “old crones.” Should that have been “30 years oldER”??? Granted the Emperor and Empress were teenagers, and granted people didn’t live nearly as long, but 30 seems a tad young for crone-hood.
My Verdict and Rating
Near the very end the story got a decent pace and some twists to it. That helped.