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Imperial Russia! Art! Scandal!

The Imperial Wife by Irina Reyn
Pub. Date: July 19, 2016
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Thomas Dunne Books!)
Summary: Two women’s lives collide when a priceless Russian artifact comes to light.

Tanya Kagan, a rising specialist in Russian art at a top New York auction house, is trying to entice Russia’s wealthy oligarchs to bid on the biggest sale of her career, The Order of Saint Catherine, while making sense of the sudden and unexplained departure of her husband.

As questions arise over the provenance of the Order and auction fever kicks in, Reyn takes us into the world of Catherine the Great, the infamous 18th-century empress who may have owned the priceless artifact, and who it turns out faced many of the same issues Tanya wrestles with in her own life.
Genre: Historical Fiction

When I first heard about The Imperial Wife, I knew it was a book I wanted to read; it was basically a checklist of everything I love in a novel: Russia, art, drama, real figures from history. Recently Matt spent the weekend in Baltimore visiting family and I took full advantage of an empty house. I settled in, eager to be transported back to the glitz and glamour of Russia.

The Imperial Wife is told in two voices: Tanya in the present day (a rising specialist in a New York auction house who’s about the make the biggest sale of her life) and 15-year-old Sophie in the 1700s (traveling the Russia to meet her betrothed and later come into her own as Catherine the Great). While both stories kept me invested – and turning the pages – it was Sophie’s chapter I looked forward to, her chapters that I took my time reading and savoring. Here is this young girl plucked from Germany and sent to a country where she hardly speaks the language. Her soon-to-be husband clearly isn’t the least bit fit to rule and instead prefers playing with his toy soldiers. Once they’re finally married, Sophie is expected to produce an heir, stat, and as the years go by without a child, Sophie’s worth rapidly declines until the Empress finally (and secretly) sends word to Sophie, in total desperation, that she knows Peter is all but useless, but they need an heir, regardless of how that happens…for any child of Sophie’s will automatically be welcomed into the fold.

Centuries later Tanya is gaining the recognition she spent years fighting for, only to have the future of Worthington’s Russian Art department hang in the balance. Suddenly everything changes when an extremely rare piece of history turns up, a medal that very well could have belonged the Catherine the Great herself. All it needs it to be authenticated – looking good so far! – and already the heavy hitters are clawing to take a look, hoping to be the one to bid high enough. While her professional life couldn’t be brighter, her home life is another story. Her husband recently decided to move out and there’s no telling if their marriage can or will be saved.

I usually tend to enjoy both story lines in books like this, but with The Imperial Wife I couldn’t wait to dive back into Sophie’s world. Tanya’s story just couldn’t cut it for me – to be honest I didn’t care about her marriage troubles one bit. That side of the story felt tacked on at the last minute as a way to have Tanya’s story relate to Sophie’s. Instead it came off feeling rushed and unpolished; nearly all of Tanya’s time is spent remembering bits and pieces of their relationship, from the night they met to when she was introduced to his parents to the bestselling novel that drove a wedge between them. Carl didn’t seem like that great of a guy to begin with: his background is in Russian studies and every scene with him felt phony, like he was more interested in Tanya’s ‘Russianness’ than he was in her as a person. The same with her parents and how Carl treated them.

There was a slight twist at the end that I enjoy immensely, but overall, The Imperial Wife was just okay. I actually think I would have enjoyed this one more had it been strictly historical fiction and focused solely on Catherine the Great. As it was, I didn’t care for Tanya – particularly her marriage drama, that will he/won’t he leave her that was ever-present throughout the book.

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