The Romanovs have their own special cottage industry in historical fiction. The romances, the revolution, the eggs, the hemophilia, the assignations, WWI, Anastasia and Rasputin have all combined to make the Romanovs the most fictionalized royals this side of the Tudors. So you have to figure that a writer must have a powerful love for those families and/or feel as though they have something new to bring to the already existing legends in order to pen another 80,000 words on them.
Is this why Kathryn Harrison wrote Enchantments? Is she fascinated by the Romanovs? Does she have some new insight or fact to bring to their history?
Enchantments is a sort of sideways novel about the Romanovs. The star is Masha, one of Rasputin’s daughters. In 1917 after a few unsuccessful attempts Rasputin was finally assassinated. Masha and her sister Varya had been living with their Father in St. Petersburg at the time and after his death they are sent to live with the royal family. Tsarina Alexandra wants to convince herself that Masha has inherited her father’s healing abilities and to that end she has the girl spend her days with her hemophiliac son, Prince Alexei .
Masha plays Scheherazade for Alexei. She enthralls him with stories. Enchantments is all about stories. The kinds of stories a government tells, the stories that make up your past, the stories you tell yourself in order to go on and the stories that make up popular opinion they are all here. In time Masha and Alexei even make up stories about how they will escape to Chicago and marry. It will be their happy ending.
That Harrison has chosen Masha as her conduit is interesting in that it creates a different perspective on the Romanovs compared to the many, many other novels about them. Intellectually Masha is a compelling character. She’s the favorite daughter of one of the most controversial figures ever (It’s Rasputin for crying out loud!), on the cusp of womanhood, afraid of having inherited her Father’s sexual appetites and living with a deposed royal family in a country undergoing a revolution that is a list of dramatic fodder the likes of which authors rarely have at their fingertips and yet… the novel is lifeless. Even the inclusion of –surprise—sexual games and denials does not add any passion to this novel.
Enchantments is imaginative, filled with intriguing historical detail and the wonderful writing you expect from Kathryn Harrison but it never takes off. Maybe all those stories defeat the inherent drama of Romanov, Rasputin and Revolution?