Past and present collide in The Imperial Wife, which acts as Irina Reyn‘s second novel.
This book consists of two time periods, so at times it feels like you’re reading two different books. The main storyline follows Tanya as she navigates the modern work landscape and her marriage in present-day New York. Readers are also exposed to the storyline of Catherine the Great, who reigned as the Empress of Russia, and what her path to power looked like. These two unlikely characters—modern Tanya and regal Catherine—are revealed to have more in common with each other than one might think.
I, hands down, enjoyed the present day storyline more than that of the historical one. I think it might be due to the fact that I absolutely loved Tanya’s character. Even though she works in the mysterious, exclusive, and high-stakes world of art auctioning (in which she just received possession of the elusive order of St. Catherine, believed to be owned by Catherine the Great), I found her incredibly relatable. She’s a woman who works hard and doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat everything. She’s been through some rough times but never pauses to throw a pity party for herself. Her observations feature a unique blend of humor and accuracy, and her distinctive voice never faltered. Reyn did a great job of developing this truly real character.
Though her other characters were interesting and vividly imagined, they tended to be a bit too stereotypical for my taste. There was the Carl, the discouraged and tortured writer, his WASP-ish parents, and the two wealthy Russian oligarchs fighting over the order of St. Catherine, who were just as extravagant and manipulative as you would imagine. They all had their own voice, but these voices felt a bit familiar.
The storyline featuring Catherine the Great puzzled me at first—mostly because I didn’t realize that the famous Russian ruler first went by the name Sophie, and also because my background knowledge on her was limited. Reyn seems to the just plunge into the beginnings of Catherine of Great assuming that her readers will understand exactly what’s going on—and I can imagine that most readers, even lovers of historical fiction like me, might not have a very comprehensive knowledge of 18th-century Russia. I was able to learn a great deal about Catherine the Great, but these sections of the book seemed sluggish to me and only towards the end did this narrative really begin to hold my interest.
I enjoyed seeing the parallels between the lives of Tanya and Catherine—both strong women paired with rather weaker counterparts for husbands, and, most strikingly, both immigrants who ended up garnering success in their new country.
The ending of Tanya’s narrative did bring to light some plot twists that I should have seen coming but ended up being completely surprised by. These plot twists, in a way, helped elevate this book from good to great in my eyes and made me think about the whole book in a completely different way. I applaud Reyn for adding in these certain plot devices because they ended up really adding to the story in the best way possible.
This book is contemporary with an interesting blend of historical fiction. I have read similar books in the past, but this one sticks out for approaching this concept in a much bolder fashion. I truly enjoyed getting lost in Tanya’s head and also discovering more about Catherine the Great. An excellent read for contemporary fiction and historical fiction lovers alike.