I Was Anastasia
I’ve long been fascinated by the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, and so, when Ariel Lawhorn’s I Was Anastasia came up for review, I was thrilled to get a chance to read it. I had really high hopes for this book, but, because of some quirks in the storytelling, I found myself quite disappointed.
The story of Anastasia and her family is not an unfamiliar one. In July of 1918, Czar Nicholas II and his family were put to death by firing squad. None of them survived – or did they?
In the winter of 1920, a young woman is fished, freezing and unconscious, from a canal in Berlin, and it is obvious from the moment she is found that she bears a remarkable resemblance to Anastasia Romanov. Due to the injuries she has sustained, this nameless woman is transported to a local hospital for treatment, and once she is examined, doctors discover that her body is covered with scars. Once she regains consciousness, she identifies herself as Anastasia Romanov, but she cannot explain her presence in the freezing water, and she refuses to speak about the ordeal she supposedly suffered at the hands of Russian revolutionaries.
Naturally, there are quite a few people who refuse to believe that this woman is who she says she is; in fact, most people believe her to be a con artist, looking for a way to get her hands on the immense Romanov fortune. She is given the name Anna Anderson, and once she recovers sufficiently from her various injuries, she takes up residence in a nearby hotel where she hopes to be able to prove her identity. But those who doubt her are equally set on proving her a fraud, and, as days pass and emotions begin to run quite high, it becomes quite clear that there are those who would rather see Anna dead than have the truth of her identity revealed.
The story moves back and forth between the Russia of 1918 Russia and Germany in 1920. Normally, I enjoy dual timeline novels, but this didn’t work at all well. The story of Anastasia Romanov is told in chronological order, while Anna Anderson’s story is told in reverse order. I’ve heard of several books that employ this method of storytelling, but I’ve never read one until now, and I will try very hard never to read one again. It’s nearly impossible to make sense of a story that is told backwards. People will be having a conversation, and the reader has no clear idea what they’re talking about. There will be references made to an event, but it’s something the reader is completely unfamiliar with. Honestly, I found the whole experience quite frustrating, and I was tempted on quite a few occasions to give the whole thing up.
Fortunately, the portion of the novel that is set in Russia is quite enjoyable, and it is for this reason that I kept on reading. It’s obvious that the author did a lot of research into the lives of Russia’s imperial family, and I was completely spellbound by the way she brought them to life. She doesn’t bog the reader down with tons of historical facts, instead weaving them subtly into her narrative in a way that feels completely natural and doesn’t detract in any way from the story.
I Was Anastasia is a complex book that seeks to shed light on one of the greatest mysteries of the twentieth century. There is a spectacularly informative author’s note at the end that details Ms. Lawhon’s research as well as giving readers some insight into why she chose to tell this story the way she did. I understand and respect her reasoning, but the reverse chronology ended up being a big turnoff, making this novel one I cannot recommend.