Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes
Robert K. Massie
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Random House
US Trade Hardback First Edition
ISBN 978-0-679-45672-8
Publication Date: 11-08-2011
630 Pages; $35
Date Reviewed: 12-17-2011

Index:  Non-Fiction  General Fiction

Biographies are not just big books — they're big business. With a plethora of television channels dedicated to the form and an ever-growing slab of shelf space, finding the good biographies can be as difficult as finding the good books. And to a degree, it's a genre that allows readers to read without a lot of discrimination. Once you've found the pleasure of immersing yourself in the lives of others, how those lives are presented may seem a bit less important than whose life you happen to hold in your hands.

But the best biographers do much more than merely present the facts of a life. Biographers understand that we define ourselves with stories, that we see our own lives as if they were novels; and the best biographies allow us to become emotionally involved with the subjects. Robert K. Massie's 'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,' has at its heart a woman whose life was fascinating even in the barest outline; a minor German princess who became a great leader of Russia and lived a life that was filled with riches, adventure, lovers and wild extremes that are almost beyond our ability to imagine in the 21st century.

Massie's triumph is that he brings her down to a life we can comprehend and then takes us on a journey into a life and world he builds, one word at a time. As you read 'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,' you'll have to remind yourself that this is non-fiction. Massie's biography has the feel of a novel from the period in which it is set.

'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman' is compelling from the first page, as Massie introduces Catherine's parents to one another and to the reader. There's a very Dickensian feel to his prose and his pacing. Massie's storytelling skill is to immerse us in three very different streams with the same words. On one hand, he's got to build characters we care about and whose emotional lives will involve us; but at the same time, he has got to create the world in which those lives unfold, because that world proves to be pretty remote from our world. And he has to create the historical context within that world which eventually leads to ours. He manages to do all three seamlessly and with such a deft, artistic feel, that the audience be reading biography but thinking and feeling novel.

His subject is both an advantage and a problem. Catherine is so colorful, her life so beyond-fairy-tale that there have been a lot of biographies before this and that there is a temptation to judge her behavior and words by today's standards. But again and again, Massie immerses in her vision and her life to the degree that we understand why she did what she did and why it made sense to her; her story becomes our story.

The key to Massie's success is that he has struck a balance between her life before she became the Empress and her life after. Massie skillfully gives us the full immersion in both her character and her world before her ascension to the Russian throne. By balancing and focusing on her early life with such a thorough, detail-oriented eye, Massie makes her decisions as Empress of Russia not merely comprehensible, but inevitable. As a reader, having the first half of the book, you're more than ready for the second half.

Despite lots of historical and personal detail, Massie knows how to marshal his impressive scholarship into something much more enjoyable to read than a textbook. 'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman' manages to live up to and beyond its title. It is a portrait of Catherine, but Massie also recreates both the world that gave birth to her and the world she gave birth to with the power of her own life. Yes, you'll find it all here; the wild costume balls, the magnificent palaces, the assassinations, the assignations, war and peace and love and revenge. There's a reason she gets written about often; actually, there are lots of reasons.

But Massie knows the true secret of powerful biography; he's telling us a story that is very much like the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. We like to think our lives are like good novels; reading the life of another written as it if were a good novel takes us neatly out of our own head, and when we climb back in we look upon our own stories, our own lives, with a fresh set of eyes. As Catherine ruled her world, so we too, are ready to rule ours.

Review Archive
All Reviews alphabetized by author.

General Fiction
Non-Genre, general fiction and literature.

Supernatural fiction, supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror.

Science Fiction
Science fiction, science fantasy, speculative fiction, alternate history.

Fantasy, surrealism and magic realism.

Crime, thrillers, mystery, suspense.

Non-Fiction, True Crime, Forteana, Reference.


Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us