“Russia, July 17, 1918: Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.
Germany, February 17, 1920: A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal in Berlin. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.
Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson.
As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened. With a brilliantly crafted dual narrative structure, Lawhon wades into the most psychologically complex and emotionally compelling territory yet: the nature of identity itself.
The question of who Anna Anderson is and what actually happened to Anastasia Romanov creates a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents. This thrilling story is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.”
My Thoughts: In I Was Anastasia, Ariel Lawhon explores the life of Anastasia Romanov in the months prior to her death and the life of Anna Anderson decades afterwards as she tries to convince her social peers and grandmother that she is indeed the remaining Romanov heir and only survivor. Told from two different vantage points and in two different linear sequences, it should be a complicated story that requires careful attention to understand the large cast of characters in Anastasia’s life and the intricacies of Russian nobility. Instead, it is a compelling story, one that makes you forget the truth as you wrestle with the question of whether Anna Anderson is indeed Anastasia Romanov.
In many ways, Anastasia’s story is separate and distinct from Anna’s story. Anastasia’s is told in the traditionally linear structure, starting with the beginnings of the Bolshevik uprising and ending in the fatal basement thousands of miles and eons away from her previous life. Anna’s story is backwards, starting with her marriage to Jack Manahan and moving back in time towards her attempted suicide in 1920. The two stories dance around each other, drawing you into Anastasia’s royal life as well as Anna’s attempts to prove her claim. The details are spectacular not only in their precision but in their abundance, making you a part of both ladies’ stories while also bringing the ladies back to life.
The strength of the novel lies in Ms. Lawhon’s ability to make you ignore DNA evidence. The fervor with which you wish Anna is Anastasia is astonishing in its vehemence. The idiosyncrasies that others put down as proof that Anna was lying become nothing more than the misfiring of a mind damaged by years of itinerant living and trauma. At the same time, Ms. Lawhon builds sympathy for the princess by showing the shrinking of her life at the hands of the Communists, the freedoms removed, and the virtual prison in which she lived the last few years of her life. She provides plausible reasons for her survival. That combined with the almost physical need for someone to have survived makes it easy to ignore facts as we now know them.
All of this combines into a novel that is not only difficult to set aside for real life but one that brings history alive. You sweat through Anna’s continuous setbacks and cheer her wins. You indulge in a little wishful thinking at how different the world would be had something changed in Anastasia’s life, if someone had stood up to the Communists on their behalf. I Was Anastasia is a historical novel that makes you forget history and science, a fact which speaks volumes about Ms. Lawhon’s ability as a writer to tell a story.