Author: Ariel Lawhon
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: March 27, 2018
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️✨ (3.5 stars)
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.
I’ve been attracted to fictionalized versions of the Anastasia Romanov story for as long as I can remember (especially the recent Broadway musical and the 1997 film that inspired it), and even if Ariel Lawhon’s I Was Anastasia is far from a romanticized, child-friendly take on the tale, it instantly intrigued me when it came onto my radar. I love the notion of the whole history being unfolded in a dual timeline that explores the bloody Russian Revolution and Romanov family’s fall from grace, as well as Anna Anderson’s more present claims that she is the long lost Grand Duchess, a survivor of the tragedies of the past.
Lawhon’s dual timeline approach is ultimately both why this novel appealed to me and why I had a hard time loving it as much as I thought I would. While the past timeline unfolds linearly, the present timeline begins in the late twentieth century and works its way backwards towards the truth of what happened the night the royal family faced their execution. Reverse timelines are inherently tricky to pull off … and with good reason. They’re hard for an audience to follow because everything you’re reading now is build-up for what you read before, which requires some mental gymnastics when you’re used to the opposite, and telling a story backwards also require a high level of opacity from the narrator in order to not give away past events. I had a very difficult time immersing myself in the present timeline for that exact reason—I felt like I was just getting to know characters as they would disappear from the storyline, and I constantly had to re-orient myself after every shift in time and remember we were moving backward not forward. It was hard for me to connect with Anna Anderson or the other characters in her life as she sought to prove her identity as Anastasia.
I did, however, adore the richness of the past storyline, which explores the lives of the Romanov family when everything they know has been up-ended. I thought the characters and their interactions with one another were fascinating, especially the loyalty of the Romanovs’ servants and other hired help, as well as the unexpected bonds that form with the original guards. It’s especially moving since that timeline is told from a child’s perspective, and we watch Anastasia’s innocence get stripped away through dark and brutal scenes that left me chilled to the core.
What I love most about I Was Anastasia is that Lawhon manages to keep you hoping and praying and holding out for an ending that you know isn’t coming from the start. For anyone familiar with the Romanov tale, there’s only one way that the collision of the past and present timelines can result, and yet I was still holding my breath during those final chapters.
Even though I found Anna Anderson’s story in the present timeline to be confusing and hard to connect with, I did love the past timeline and enjoyed I Was Anastasia overall. It’s more than apparent that Lawhon has invested much research and care into this novel, and now I’m even fascinated to continue learning more about the truth behind the Romanov story.