Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review: Anastasia's Secret, by Susanne Dunlap (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Susanne Dunlap has written a wonderfully romantic and tragic novel about the final days of Anastasia Romanova, more formally known as the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicholaevna Romanova, the youngest daughter of the last czar of Russia. Told in the first person by Anastasia herself, the self-appointed fun-loving practical joker of the Romanov children, the novel starts at the time of the outbreak of World War I, when Anastasia's idyllic childhood begins to change forever. Dunlap intersects into Anastasia's story a fictional member of the family's guard, a soldier named Sasha, whom Anastasia befriends and sees secretly until he is sent to the front. Although at first Sasha sees Anastasia as no more than a silly child, when he returns from the war their friendship blossoms into young romance, even leading to secret meetings in pantries where the lovers exchange more than just kisses.

As the situation for the royal family deteriorates, their life of parties and balls evaporates and Anastasia and her sisters spend their time instead nursing and visiting casualties from the front and knitting stockings for soldiers. Soon the czar is forced to abdicate and the royal family is imprisoned in their own palace. The faithful young Sasha manages to get himself stationed nearby, always keeping an eye on his beautiful duchess. Anastasia trusts that Sasha will help keep her safe, but can he help the duchess and her family escape their doom?

Initially I was a bit bothered by the insertion of Sasha, an entirely fictional romantic interest for Anastasia, into this novel which is otherwise populated by actual historical figures. In an afterword, the author explains that Sasha and one or two servants are the only characters that came "entirely from my imagination. Everyone else--including the pets--had documented roles in the family's life."

But as the novel develops, the character of Sasha provides a method for the author to expose Anastasia (and thus the reader) to situations and conversations that help to move the story along and also provide useful background for the reader. For example, in one scene, Anastasia sneaks out of the palace at night to accompany Sasha to a filthy campground which houses thousands of poor people, living in unimaginable squalor not far from the ultra-privileged life of the young duchess. This provides background for the reader on the dire economic circumstances in Russia at this time, which would undoubtedly be hidden from the duchess. Also, there is no doubt that Sasha provides a dashing, brave romantic interest which adds tremendously to the already dramatic story.

An epilogue explains to readers how the royal family was eventually executed in Yekaterinburg, Siberia, but that since the secret graves where the bodies were dumped were not found until the 1990's, for many years speculation ran rampant that Anastasia and possibly her brother, the heir, may have escaped alive. Recent DNA testing from 2009 on the remains has finally put these long-standing rumors to rest.

Teen readers who would like to read more historical fiction about this period might also enjoy The Curse of the Romanovs by Staton Rabin (Simon & Schuster, 2007), a time travel story centered on Anastasia's brother, Alexei.

For more on Anastasia on-line, the author recommends the Alexander Palace Time Machine. Readers might also enjoy seeing actual photographs of Anastasia and her family in an on-line photo album.


Becky said...

Hi Margo, A friend recommended your blog to me, and I read a few of your reviews, which are very good! I can't wait to see what you thought of Anastasia's Secret - I've been eying that book for a while. :)

I love Historical Fiction (even run a HF book group on so your blog definitely appeals to me!! :D

I'm a new follower, and look forward to your reviews!


Anonymous said...

Just to let you know you spelled Tzar