#BookReview: I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

Biographic Fiction

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Ariel Lawhon, a rising star in historical suspense, has set her sights on one of history's most beguiling mysteries: Did Anastasia Romanov survive the Russian Revolution, or was Anna Anderson, the woman who notoriously claimed her identity, an impostor?

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. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water or even acknowledge her rescuers, 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 young woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess.

As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre at Ekaterinburg, old enemies and new threats are awakened. The question of who this woman is and what actually happened to Anastasia creates a saga that spans fifty years and three continents. This thrilling page-turner is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.

I Was Anastasia marks my first experience with author Ariel Lawhon. I was familiar with the history behind the novel, but I didn’t have any real expectations when I picked it up and was more than a little surprised when the book proved almost impossible to put aside.

Lawhon’s style and tone captured my attention from the first line and refused to release its hold until the very end of the narrative. I hate to gush, but Lawhon’s ability to convey genuine tension is nothing short of brilliant. I knew where this story was going, but I still felt real fear and desperation in the musings and movements of both her leads and loved how their emotions emanated so distinctly from the page.

The drama of the story is enhanced by Lawhon's brazenly ambitious structuring of the narrative. Anastasia’s chapters progress chronologically, but Anna’s are inverted. The end result leaves the reader questioning if the two voices run parallel to one another or if they are in fact two parts of a singular whole. The finale itself is wonderful, but it should be understood that Lawhon was not writing about the answer so much as the question. The ambiguity of Anna’s origin and inability to definitely identify her during her lifetime immortalized Anastasia and I adore how Lawhon’s narrative plays on that reality.

The novel incorporates great historic details, but I will admit to struggling with a handful of scenes. As much as I loved the story, I was keenly aware that certain moments were based more on rumor rather than verifiable fact and while I appreciate what those passages brought in terms of storytelling, the history buff in me couldn’t help wrinkling her nose. Lawhon’s characterization of Anastasia was also more mature and worldly than I envision her, but at the end of the day, my only real comment on Lawhon’s interpretation is that it’s clear she favored Anna. I can’t presume to know why, but reading between the lines, the author seemed to have more fun with Anna’s chapters than she did Anastasia’s.

Imaginatively tenacious and creatively composed, I Was Anastasia brings life to a mystery that captivated the world for much of the twentieth century. Highly recommended. An absolute must-read.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Edelweiss
Read: September 21, 2017

If I tell you what happened that night in Ekaterinburg I will have to unwind my memory - all the twisted coils - and lay it in your palm. It will be the gift and curse I bestow upon you. A confession for which you may never forgive me.