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Kathryn Harrison – Enchantments

February 6, 2012

LibraryThing Early Reviewers9. Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison (2012)

Length: 318 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 22 January 2012
Finished: 25 January 2012

Where did it come from? From Random House via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Why do I have it? I’ve never read anything about the Russian Revolution, and thought it looked interesting.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 01 December 2011.

Having royal friends
is less fun in the midst of
a revolution.

Summary: 1917 was a turbulent year for Russia. Already deeply enmeshed in World War I, there were problems on the home front as well, as the seeds of revolution began to sprout. On New Year’s Day, the body of the “Mad Monk” Rasputin, charismatic healer and confidante of the tsarina, was pulled from the icy river Neva. His daughters, according to his wishes, are placed under the protection of the Romanov royal family. Eighteen-year-old Masha, despite not being gifted with her father’s powers, takes his place at the bedside of the young tsarevitch, Alyosha. The heir to the empire, Alyosha is frequently confined to bed with the effects of his hemophilia, and Masha must do what she can to ease his discomfort. She tells him stories, of her parents and his, but even the most enchanting fictions cannot hide the fact that the Romanovs are under house arrest by the Bolsheviks, and that Alyosha may not survive long enough to die from his disease.

Review: I was originally interested in this book because I’ve read relatively little fiction set in Russia, and while I know the barest basics about the Russian Revolution, I was hoping to get the kind of fuller picture that historical fiction so often provides. And on that score, Enchantments half-succeeds. It does an excellent job bringing several key figures to life; Masha’s stories are tinged with a heavy dose of magical realism, yet somehow still manage to make her father and the Romanovs feel like real people. Rasputin had a fascinating life, and the portrait of the royal family stoically awaiting what they know to be their end is heartbreaking.

Where Enchantments didn’t succeed as well as I’d hoped was in providing a larger context for the death of Rasputin and the Russian Revolution more generally. The book is narrated by Masha, so she can perhaps be forgiven for not always knowing the details of what was going on outside the palace walls, but as a reader new to the topic, I could have used a broader perspective.

I also felt like the one place the characterization let me down was with Masha herself. She spends so much time telling stories about other people that I never really got to know who she was, in the absence of her famous relations. This was problematic, since a large part of the book seemed to want to be a love story between Masha and Alyosha. But since Masha was mostly a cipher to me, and Alyosha came across as kind of creepily sexually pushy, especially given his young age, I never really felt the romance, and that plotline ended (by the forcible separation of the leads) before it really had a chance to develop.

Harrison’s writing was lovely, lyrical and injecting just the right amount of magical realism into the proceedings to make it feel special without seeming overdone. I did wish for a more substantial author’s note; Harrison does point out that Masha’s ultimate fate (as a lion tamer for a circus traveling the United States) is real, but leaves it to the reader to figure out what other changes she’d made. Overall, it was an enjoyable read, and I like Harrison’s style enough that I’d certainly pick up another of her books, but this one left me wanting something that dealt with the time period with a little more depth. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: For fans of historical fiction, especially Russian history, this book is an enjoyable, if not necessarily an essential read.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Behold: in the beginning there was everything, just as there is now.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 6: “The crowd thinned, eventually it did, but not before opportunists had set up shop along the riverbank, selling empty jars and bottles to anyone who hadn’t brought one, as well as hawking bread, cheese, pomegranates, kvass and vodka by the glass, cider dipped from a pot hanging over a fire.” – a Russian beer made from fermenting rye or barley and having a dark color and sour taste.
  • p. 88: “Once again, Alyosha recited what had already – instantly – become the last act of my father’s hagiography.” – the writing and critical study of the lives of the saints.
  • p. 117: “Better to burst forth from a dull, asthmatic shepherdess, like Bernadette of Lourdes, or a ragged muzhik from Siberia, like my father.” – a Russian peasant.
  • p. 193-4: “By the time he was introduced to the tsarina, he was laughing raucously, jigging down the halls, pinching the fabric of the servents’ uniforms with his dirty fingers, touching all the bibelots and weighing them in his hands to know their value.” – a small object of curiosity, beauty, or rarity.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012 10:59 am

    hm, I would be more excited about this book if you had liked it a bit more, but it does sound interesting.

    • February 23, 2012 3:49 pm

      It was an interesting read, I just wanted something a little more.

  2. February 6, 2012 2:11 pm

    I’ve read others of her novels and some of what you’ve said about this one (both positive and negative) fits with my memory of that reading; I think I might enjoy it more, with those expectations already in place. One thing that I seem to remember her having done exceptionally well was her evocation of things that are ugly in such a discomfiting and vivid way that it’s almost beautiful. Which of course only made it all-the-more unsettling.

    • February 23, 2012 3:50 pm

      That’s an excellent point, and the scene in which Masha and the maid are preparing her father for burial definitely qualifies.

  3. February 6, 2012 3:52 pm

    I used to be fascinated with Rasputin and read a lot about him. I’m not sure about this book.

    • February 23, 2012 3:50 pm

      It’d be interesting to see your reaction, as someone who knows more about the subject than I did.

  4. April 27, 2012 1:06 pm

    Just finished reading Enchantments – persevering through all the history. In my review I mentioned that Harrison’s penchant for jumping around the years kept me a little unnerved, but I know others who actually liked this. Overall, glad I read it.

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