Does the world need another book about the Romanovs? That is the question. I’m not exactly sure that it does, but then again I’m not sure that it doesn’t. Helpful, no? There are a slew of nonfiction books about Czarist Russia, Rasputin, the October Revolution, etc and a book has to be unique to add something new to a discourse that has been hashed over to the point of animated musical fodder. The Romanov Sisters while well researched, and well written, did not add anything that I didn’t already know, it only went into minute detail about things that might not have previously been written about because they weren’t that interesting to begin with.
Rappaport begins her prologue in the empty Alexander Palace and Alexander Park after the Czar’s family were exiled. She goes into great detail describing the living quarters of the four Romanov sisters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia and the things they left behind. Rappaport then jumps to a detailed history of Alix Romanov (the girls’ mother) and how she came to be married to the czar of Russia. This little walkabout serves two purposes. One, it lengthens the book and two, it shows that the choices Alexandra made later in life that put the royal family in great jeopardy must have had something to do with the way she was brought up. In short, I feel Rappaport wanted the reader to sympathize with Alexandra and see her as a devoted mother rather than the cold, power hungry, eccentric that has been portrayed in more critical historical accounts. For my part, I think Rappaport gave Alexandra a bit of a pass, but we can get to that later. Chronologically we follow Alexandra through her marriage, the birth of her daughters, her pursuit of having a son, and her disastrous relations with the Russian people. Eventually we get to the daughters, but as the book is supposed to be about them, it was a touch too late for me. Rappaport details the daily lives of the Romanov sisters. She uses letters and first person records to try to capture their personality and make them live. I say try, because I don’t think Rappaport ever made them feel vibrant or alive to me. I felt as though I was reading facts about dead people, which I was, but in this kind of book I want to be transported. I want to be with these people. I want to feel with them. I want their loss to mean something to me personally. Rappaport did a better job of focussing on both Nicholas and Alexandra and painting them as flawed human beings living in challenging times.
In short, the book’s title is misleading. This book talks about the Romanov sisters, surely, but it is more a study in why Alexandra and Nicholas made the choices that they did. Cynically, I feel that book has already been written as well and marketing a book about the sisters might have been an easier sell. Anyone familiar with the history is going to know where this book is going, but they are not going to be excited to get there. Not only because the ending is a family slaughtered in a basement, but because the girls feel like they never lived at all. Rappaport’s book does not give them life. I was disappointed in this one because I wanted to like it. What Rapport did well was physically describe the lifestyle the Romanov Sisters had both before and during their exile. What Rappaport doesn’t do well is show a larger political picture in a more nuanced way. Those who love Russian history might like this because it is sympathetic to the Czarina, but it doesn’t add much to an already overflowing discourse about the Romanovs and their demise.