“Grand Duchess Olga Romanov comes of age amid a shifting tide for the great dynasties of Europe. But even as unrest simmers in the capital, Olga is content to live within the confines of the sheltered life her parents have built for and her three sisters: hiding from the world on account of their mother’s ill health, their brother Alexei’s secret affliction, and rising controversy over Father Grigori Rasputin, the priest on whom the Tsarina has come to rely. Olga’s only escape from the seclusion of Alexander Palace comes from her aunt, who takes pity on her and her sister Tatiana, inviting them to grand tea parties amid the shadow court of Saint Petersburg. Finally, she glimpses a world beyond her mother’s Victorian sensibilities—a world of opulent ballrooms, scandalous flirtation, and whispered conversation.
But as war approaches, the palaces of Russia are transformed. Olga and her sisters trade their gowns for nursing habits, assisting in surgeries and tending to the wounded bodies and minds of Russia’s military officers. As troubling rumours about her parents trickle in from the Front, Olga dares to hope that a budding romance might survive whatever the future may hold. But when tensions run high and supplies run low, the controversy over Rasputin grows into fiery protest, and calls for revolution threaten to end 300 years of Romanov rule.”
Most historical fiction novels about the last Romanov family seem to focus on Anastasia, so I was happy to see her oldest sister Olga, get some attention in The Last Grand Duchess (Amazon). At the beginning of the book, I found the split timeline narrative, wherein one chapter was set in 1914 and then the following just three years later, a little confusing as I listened to the audiobook. Eventually the timeline gets even closer, which made it harder to follow again.
That being said, one thing I really liked about The Last Grand Duchess was the fact that Olga actually pushes against the restraints her parents put up for her. Normally, Tsar Nicholas’ family is always depicted as close-knit and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. One of the reasons is Alexandra’s dislike of royal society, who don’t like her because of her German ancestry. (Alexandra was also the granddaughter of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria). Another reason is because Olga’s brother Alexi has hemophilia, the bleeding disease that Queen Victoria passed on to her descendants. That overprotectiveness by her parents is one of the many reasons Nicholas was a lousy ruler. He didn’t deserve to die, certainly, but his focus on his family was so great that matters of state weren’t given proper attention. I could go on with a lot of other reasons Nicholas wasn’t a great ruler, but this book is about Olga.
It’s not surprising that Olga should find herself falling in love during her work as a nurse during World War I. But since we know how it all ends, there’s no feel good, happy ending. As happens in war, lovers are torn apart and lives are lost. Turnbull does an excellent job of showing how Olga goes into the work of a nurse as immature and naive, but slowly, as she listens to the soldiers and hears the murmurs of discontent, she realizes how her parents’ action or inaction is affecting the people of the country.
I thought the descriptions of the isolation the Romanovs must have felt while they were being held prisoner was aptly portrayed. It was a good thing they were a close-knit family, because they were shut off from the rest of the world except for visits from their personal doctor. In due time, even the doctor is not allowed to visit.
Throughout the book, Olga is drawn out as a full character, instead of being lumped into a group with her sisters and brother. Factually, the author incorporates what is known of the Romanov’s last days into the narrative. Overall, a very satisfying look at the last years of Tsarist rule in Russia.
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