Hey all—Sophia here. You might call me Lili’s personal book niffler of sorts, perpetually looking at her endless physical and digital shelves until the temptation is too great and I have to snatch the shinies for myself. I Was Anastasia is not the first, nor will it be the last book that Lili invites me to indulge in, but it is the first that she’s letting me voice my opinions about. As with most things regarding the Princess Anastasia, I was skeptical about yet another book telling the same old story. However, Ariel Lawhon’s take was both tantalizing and unputdownable.
Here’s the premise:
Russia, July 17, 1918 Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.
Germany, February 17, 1920 A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal in Berlin. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.
Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson.
As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened. With a brilliantly crafted dual narrative structure, Lawhon wades into the most psychologically complex and emotionally compelling territory yet: the nature of identity itself.
The question of who Anna Anderson is and what actually happened to Anastasia Romanov creates a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents. This thrilling story is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.
The novel is told in two points of view: the first from the seventeen-year-old tsarevna’s perspective from the moment her father is stripped from power through to her alleged death. The second, and by far the more interesting of the two, begins with the official verdict from the German courts renouncing Anna Anderson’s claim to the lost princess’s identity. This point of you rolls backwards in time, often rewinding through a whole decade of dramatics. But while this may seem confusing at first, Lawhon has clear control of her own narrative. I was practically having an asthma attack as the two timelines came closer together, begging me to draw conclusions that I wasn’t ready to defend. It was almost Benjamin Button-esque.
“I’ve never realized before how clearly men need leaders. How adrift we are without them and how the mere sight of one can breathe courage into a room.”
Both Anna and Anastasia—two sides of the same coin—are remarkably strong heroines. The quick-wit and charm that the real-world Anastasia was famous for shines brightly through Lawson’s narrative, and even in the times where I was filled with doubt and felt like I couldn’t rely on either of them, I couldn’t help but like them. I wanted her so very much to be real and alive, that I found myself justifying scenes and pieces of evidence to myself. In this way, the author makes us part of the story in our own right, living up to the premise and leaving us with more agency than we ever expect to have with a novel.
And this is exactly Lawhon’s point. The whole world was captivated by the possibility of a happy ending that it was willing to turn a blind eye to its very real, blighted history. In a sense, we are all Gleb and Tanya Botkin, filling the empty voids of ourselves with enough hope to drown out the truth.
“Beer tastes like horse piss marinated in despair.”
Above all, however, I Was Anastasia presents readers with a novel take on the impact of identity on our past, our future, and our legacy. Whether or not Anna Anderson was truly Anastasia did not matter so long as she was giving us the Grand Duchess we needed, when we needed it. During the more difficult moments of the book to get through (tw: rape, restraint, drugging, electro-convulsive therapy), I found myself looking forward to Anna’s point of view, just to make me feel like everything turned out at least okay enough to make jokes about beer, or to tear a man apart in five languages (and in as many minutes). This was the true strength and cleverness of the infamous woman, and is a testament to Lawhon’s mastery of history, emotions, and the way they come together. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone who values all of the above. You can find I Was Anastasia on Goodreads.