I supposed that most women will come off the worse when compared to Catherine the Great, as Irina Reyn’s novel The Imperial Wife does by telling the empress’s story alongside the story of a young art specialist in modern New York. To be fair, Tanya Kagan Vandermotter holds her own for much of the novel. I genuinely thought that I was reading twin tales of women realizing their own power over their destinies. Catherine obviously did. Tanya, however, makes a decision at the very end of the book that infuriated me. The ending of this novel made me so angry that I’ve needed almost an entire day before I felt like I could write this post. In an effort to not spoil this book to other readers who may have a different opinion of Tanya’s actions, all I will say about the ending is that I think it undercuts her entire plotline.
Catherine the Great’s rise to power is one of the most remarkable in European history. Catherine was born an obscure German princess who, though a lot of wheeling and dealing above her head, was married to Tsarevich Peter, the heir to Russia’s Empress Elizabeth, in 1745. By 1762, Catherine had overthrown her husband and become empress in her own right. She would rule for more than 30 years. Tanya Kagan Vandermotter has much less lofty goals. She just wants to, first, save her job as Russian art specialist for Worthington’s auction house, and, second, save her marriage to her moody New York-blue blood husband. The two women are connect by two chance occurrences. Tanya’s husband happens to have written a novel of Catherine’s early life. The second occurrence is more important for the plot. Against all odds, it appears that Catherine’s own Order of St. Catherine medal has been found after being lost for more than 200 years.
As the novel progresses, we see Catherine’s rise to power and growing confidence as a future autocrat. There are a few moments where Catherine doubts, but they are quickly overcome. For Tanya, finding her confidence is a more difficult task. She’s intimidated by Americans and Russians alike. As a Russian Jewish immigrant, Tanya doesn’t feel like she belongs to either group. She imagines how people are judging her otherness whenever she finds herself in a group of people. Imposter Syndrome doesn’t listen to reason and this is definitely true for Tanya. Although she is clearly very good at her job—buying and selling Russian art—she constantly frets that her world will come crashing down.
Tanya’s Imposter Syndrome is not helped by the fact that her husband is going through something (something we don’t understand until much later). Carl Vandermotter is giving off signs that he is unhappy. He accuses Tanya of judging him and of feeling superior to him. Carl, to be blunt, bugged the shit out of me. Even when I realized what Carl was wrestling with, I still didn’t feel much sympathy for him. Throughout The Imperial Wife, Tanya says that she wants a relationship that is a partnership. Everyone she tells this to scoffs, but I understand. For a woman who spends so much time taking care of everything and everyone, it would be nice to have a partner who is strong enough to take charge for a while. Carl’s lack of initiative and waffling always prompt Tanya to act. Even when Tanya stresses about her tenuous position at work (the Russian art department might not be profitable enough to maintain), Carl only seems to care about himself. He never offers any kind of support to the overworked Tanya.
For most of The Imperial Wife, as I said, I thought I was watching two women discovering their own power and independence. Catherine seizes power in Russia. Tanya labors mightily to save the Russian art department and keep her integrity in the face of oligarchs asking for favors. Tanya finds her power. It’s the independence part where she falls down, I think. But! I am in danger of spoiling the end of The Imperial Wife again. To close before I totally blow it, I will say that reading this novel was a curious experience. I really enjoyed 95% of this book. I would recommend that 95% in a heartbeat to people who like books with parallel narratives in different time periods. That last 5%, though, is so troubling, aggravating, and puzzling that it makes me question whether or not I can recommend the book. How can I tell someone, “Read this! You’ll like it until the ending pisses you off”?