Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great
After suffering a debilitating stroke, Catherine the Great begins mentally reliving parts of her life as some work to save her while others are more interested in claiming her title. The good and the bad all start running together in a montage of life events. While her body fails her, slowly letting her slip out of the present and back into the past, she questions not only what she’s done but how she’s done it.
Remembering when she was still a girl called Sophie, a Prussian princess with barely any standing at court, Catherine recalls her early days at the palace --- those exhausting days with her mother, the strain of trying to understand, and even like, the man who was to be her husband. The much-promised and hoped-for heir arrives after eight unsuccessful and unhappy years of marriage, and Catherine is anything but joyous at the birth of her son. Soon after, the child is whisked away to be raised by another, and she never bonds with him. Her husband, a man who plays with toy soldiers in their bed and is completely unfit to rule with his controlling and cruel behavior, is another source of sadness for her. Catherine struggles to find some meaning and, in some ways, a life for herself. She spends years as the Grand Duchess of Russia in a depressed and lonely state.
"As the reader, you’re left with an intimate, up-close look at the imagined life of Catherine the Great. It is, quite simply, wonderful."
When Tsarina Elizabeth finally succumbs, Catherine and her husband are crowned. A coup soon follows their coronation, and it’s Catherine who emerges as the lone ruler --- Empress of Russia and all her lands. It’s under her rule that Russia begins to flourish. Not only does she bring peace to the nation, she also expands its borders and brings economic stability and a growth the nation hadn’t yet seen. Not everyone had something nice to say about Catherine, though, and it’s those moments she replays in her mind, knowing that she made mistakes, but believing that what she did was in the best interests of her country and her people.
When you’re introduced to Catherine, she’s a shy young woman embarrassed by her mother and her upbringing but who sees her own potential and, though unhappy, understands on some deep level that she will overcome her current state. She perseveres, building her power and becoming the Empress of Russia --- an incredible feat for someone with no royal ties other than marrying into the family. I love the language of the book --- at times it feels a bit sharp, almost staccato-like --- and it fits so well with the character of Catherine. She’s a smart woman, always kind and very generous (especially to her lovers), but she doesn’t suffer fools. This was particularly true when it came to her husband and son, who both met bitter ends.
At times, Catherine is an incredibly imposing figure. As a woman looking back, reliving some of the happier times, the sadder moments, and questioning her own decisions, her larger-than-life mystique builds. You see how much she cares for her country and hope that all the suffering and struggle will not have been for nothing. Catherine, as the reader comes to understand, was never a woman who let her heart lead her. Having it broken and crushed early in life, she may fall victim to the whims of her heart some days, but it never becomes a driving force.
EMPRESS OF THE NIGHT is the follow-up to Eva Stachniak’s previous novel, THE WINTER PALACE. Where that book was told from the point of view of a loyal servant, her latest is told from Catherine’s perspective. As the reader, you’re left with an intimate, up-close look at the imagined life of Catherine the Great. It is, quite simply, wonderful.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on March 28, 2014