Friday, July 22, 2016

Irina Reyn's The Imperial Wife, a sharply written tale about female ambition

How do high-powered women navigate their world? What concessions should they make to achieve domestic harmony?

Reyn (What Happened to Anna K., 2008) raises these important questions through the parallel tales of Tanya Kagan Vandermotter, head of Russian art at a New York auction house, and Catherine the Great, the intelligent German princess who deposed her ineffectual husband to claim Russia’s throne for herself.

Feeling obliged to compensate for her modest Russian Jewish immigrant background, Tanya is ultracompetent at her job, and coordinating an auction for a medallion that probably belonged to the empress would cement her career. However, her bestselling-writer husband chooses that moment to flee, seemingly threatened by her success.

Readers are treated to fabulous set pieces as the plot moves from the glittering Saint Petersburg court in the eighteenth century to an opulent party in the company of Russian oligarchs along the modern Côte d’Azur. With its sharp characterizations and unexpected twists, Reyn’s novel keeps readers on their toes. Both women elicit compassion due to their position as outsiders, and their stories intertwine in playful and profound ways.

The Imperial Wife is published this month by Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin's Press ($25.99, hb, 288pp). This review first appeared in Booklist's June 1st issue.

Some more thoughts:

The ARC that I read had a different cover than the one above, and I think it suits the story of The Imperial Wife better, as it has a more contemporary feel.  This may be because I've read fiction about Catherine the Great before (most recently Eva Stachniak's The Winter Palace), but I found the modern story the more memorable of the two.

This is an atypical multi-period novel in that the two plotlines are primarily related by theme.  Also (there wasn't enough room to say this in a short review) the fictional sections about Catherine the Great are taken from the bestselling novel that made Tanya's writer husband famous.

Finally, some people will dislike the ending, but I thought it was appropriate.


  1. Sounds very unusual.

    1. The style is different. It's also lighter in tone than most in the dual-period novel category.

  2. Still very interested in this one - I'm looking forward to reading it as soon as I get my hands on a copy!

    1. I remember you were interested in this book - hope you manage to snag a copy!