Book Review of “I was Anastasia” by Ariel Lawhon.
For over five decades there were unending, international court battles, rumors and intrigue surrounding a woman called Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Anastasia, the sole surviving child of Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, who was famously executed during the Russian Revolution along with his whole family. Ariel Lawhon’s latest historical fiction novel delves into this story from two angles, with a wholly unique, fictionalized approach.
I will begin this review with Lawhon’s own request to any of her readers who like to read the authors notes before they read the book. Don’t do it – please, don’t do it, because it will totally ruin the book for you. Now, this isn’t something that I generally do myself. However, I have been known to occasionally jump into the author’s notes while in the middle of reading a book, and if you’re more like me, I also encourage you to resist that urge. Thankfully, I didn’t do this with this novel, and I’m very glad I didn’t.
However, there was one thing I found in those notes that I can reveal here, that being that apparently, Lawhon was writing another novel when this one grabbed her and forced her to write it. If you’re not a writer, you might not understand this, but I can assure you that sometimes writers have no choice regarding what they’re going to write about. Sometimes a subject just grabs a writer so strongly that they must abandon everything else and work on that instead. All I can add to this is, thank heavens this subject found Lawhon, because… Oh… My… Goodness! (I apologize at the outset if this review is overly effusive, since I doubt I’ll be able to restrain myself.)
Let’s start out by getting technical here. There are two literary mechanics that Lawhon employs here that make this novel outstanding (in every sense of the word). First, there’s the changing of points of view. Lawhon tells this story in alternating chapters, entitled either ‘Anna’ or ‘Anastasia.’ With this, Anastasia’s chapters are all told in first person, where Lawhon imagines what those 18 months were like from the onset of the revolution until the infamous execution of the royal family, all from Anastasia’s point of view. On the other hand, Lawhon (mostly) uses third person for Anna’s chapters, allowing the reader a wider, yet less personal view. The reason I say “mostly” is because there are two instances where Lawhon breaks the “fourth wall” and has Anna address the reader directly, with, I may add, stunning results.
The other literary mechanic is how Lawhon uses time. The Anastasia chapters are told in strict chronological order, with very little in the way of flashbacks, except to reveal some essential bits of background. The chapters with Anna, however, start at the end – or as close to the end as possible – and work their way backwards in time. Of course, with this we can immediately anticipate how the two stories will come together, which they obviously must do – but to say any more than this would necessarily force me to include spoilers, and you know I’ll never do that with any book review.
What this gives us is a truly ingeniously constructed work, that is both electrifying and powerful in every possible way. As witnessed with her first two novels, Lawhon knows exactly how to build the tension and get into each of the character’s heads, with such nuance, careful use of language, and carefully layered atmosphere, that it almost takes your breath away. Furthermore, Lawhon’s readers already know how she likes to invent her own solutions to these age-old unsolved mysteries, and this book is no exception. In fact, of her three books, I think Lawhon’s interpretation of this story is the most intriguing, if not satisfying, of all. In short, if I was forced to describe this book in one phrase, I’d say that it sizzles until it explodes into glorious and surprising fireworks. Obviously, there’s no need for me to gush any further about this book, except to say Brava to Ms. Lawhon and give this book a full five stars!
Doubleday will release “I was Anastasia” by Ariel Lawhon on March 27, 2018. This book is available (for pre-order) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for allowing me access to the ARC of this novel via NetGalley and Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review.