The discovery of a historic Russian artifact kicks off a dual narrative of two women separated by centuries but united in grit and ambition.
Tanya Kagan arrived in Queens as a child with her poor Russian immigrant parents but has fought her way to the role of specialist in Russian art at a tony New York auction house. As her career rises, her marriage—to Carl Vandermotter, the academic son of threadbare Upper East Side bluebloods—is faltering. Carl has written a bestselling novel about the early years of Catherine the Great, relating her life from her arrival in Russia from Prussia to marry the weak, impotent Peter to her ascent to the role of empress. Chapters from Carl's novel, Young Catherine, alternate with Tanya's story as Tanya prepares for a spectacular auction of The Order of St. Catherine, a medallion given to the young Catherine by the Empress Elizabeth in 1744. Author Reyn (What Happened to Anna K, 2008) juggles the dual narratives effectively, finding parallels in the stories of two young women in a foreign land with few allies and ineffectual husbands. Tanya is the more compelling character, full of fire and drive, scrappy and self-aware, prone to tart observations of the class divide, not only between herself and her WASP colleagues, but also between the Russia she left and the world of her new-money oligarch clientele: “This is the new Russia: technology and hair and the frisson of danger.” Young Catherine is a more remote figure, both historically and by virtue of the fact that she is the creation of another character. A twist at the end pulls the stories together in a satisfying manner.
The stories of two eras and two marriages are related in evocative language steeped in keenly observed details.