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Review: Historical novel 'I Was Anastasia' offers unique look, but fails to garner sympathy

The world has been fascinated by the fate of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and the fate of his family. Nothing was more captivating than the notion that one family member could have escaped their terrible fate.

Ariel Lawhon takes the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia and puts her own unique twist on it by pairing it with the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

“I was Anastasia” is told from two points of view. Anastasia’s story starts shortly before the start of the Revolution and moves forward in time. What is heartbreaking about Anastasia’s story is that there is only one way for it to end. Lawhon has written a compelling picture of the Grand Duchess as a teenager during the most difficult time of her life.

Anastasia came across the pages as brave and courageous. She is a helper and longs to be seen by her family as an adult. Sadly, as history tells us, this will not come to pass.

Starting just days before the Revolution, “I was Anastasia” does not spend much time examining the Romanov’s luxurious lifestyle before the Revolution. The reader only sees the world through the eyes of Anastasia with brief glimpses of what the family had before they were placed under house arrest. As a result, it is not easy to see how much the family loses with imprisonment and difficult to see how the common people of Russia compared. But it is easy to feel sympathetic toward the Tsar’s family and their eventual fate is jarring even if the reader knows what will happen in that dark basement in the far outreaches of the Russian countryside.

The alternate chapters are told from Anna Anderson’s point of view. Anna is the woman who claimed for many years to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia. To juxtapose her to Anastasia, Anna’s story is told backward (think Memento). The reader meets her as an old woman on her last dime — desperate — and as the novel progresses, the reader witnesses her growing younger until it is revealed, at least in Lawhon’s opinion, why Anderson began to believe and claim publicly she was the daughter of the Tsar.

Unfortunately, starting at the end of Anderson’s life, when she is in the final legal battle with the members of the Royal Family to recognize her claim, plays against the sympathies of the reader. By showing her during her worst days, and knowing how science since has disproved her claim, there is almost immediate animosity. It’s hard to keep an open mind about Anna’s situation. It’s hard to be sympathetic to a fraud. Anna’s life story is at direct odds to the sweet, young life of Anastasia, tragically cut short, told in opposing chapters.

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As readers move through the novel, they may feel torn — longing for the tragedy that befalls Anastasia and her family to not happen and an urgency for Anna’s lie to be put to bed and end quickly. This dissonance doesn’t play well and causes the novel to drag most of its 300 pages especially during Anna’s chapters, which come across as brash and uncaring until the start of her story is reached.

While “I was Anastasia” is a unique look at history, it’s unclear whether readers, upon reaching the start of Anna Anderson’s story, are meant to feel as sympathetic to her plight as one might for Anastasia’s, leaving a sense of unresolved feelings that may not sit well with many readers.

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