We’ve all heard of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed she was Anastasia Romanov and later proved she was fraud. The fate of the Romanovs is a heartbreaking tale and one that continues to fascinate new generations. Jennifer Laam’s The Secret Daughter of the Tsar is an intriguing tale about Empress Alexandra Romanov and her desire to have a son.
Russian history professor, Veronica Herrea, is working on a book about Alexandra Romanov. Meeting with the department chair, she’s told she must produce a high quality book if she wants tenure and the odds aren’t in her favor. Frustrated she begins to look at other avenues of research. Then she meets the mysterious Michael Karstadt who has a secret. He offers to assist in her research and Veronica isn’t sure she can trust him. When she stumbles upon a piece of information regarding Michael’s past, she begins to have second thoughts and believes she’s been duped all along. Veronica is stunned when Michael leads her to a secret about Alexandra and suddenly her world is turned upside down.
As for characterization, it’s a bit a weak, but this isn’t one of those novels that require in-depth characters; our only interest in getting to the truth. We spend an equal amount of time of time in the present with Veronica and Michael. I found it easy to associate with Veronica especially her fears regarding failure. I often felt the odd person out while working on my postgraduate degree and Veronica is that person in her department. It’s really easy to like her especially since academia isn’t as cozy as everyone thinks it may be. Then we have Michael and I had my doubts about him, but I really enjoyed getting to know him at the same time Veronica does. I won’t go into detail about his motives and leave you to make your own assessment. In the past, I loved Lena, the loyal servant to Alexandra. Then we have Charlotte who in many ways is very bland and we aren’t given much information about her. I really liked how she went from being passive to taking on a more active role. Of all three women, I liked Lena a lot, but it’s Charlotte who I feel for. Charlotte’s the one who also captures my interest the most and I do believe it’s because she’s the one we know the least about. She remains a mystery and it’s fitting that we know so little about her. We have a few secondary characters that are vital to the plot including a Russian mobster whose only interest is getting a Tsar back onto the throne and is willing to do anything for it. Then there’s Alexi Romanov who considers himself the heir apparent.
Written primarily in third person and set in the present, Secret Daughter alternates chapters with the past. Laam does a great job notifying readers of the time period and prepares you well for the change. If I have one small complaint, it’s this change and it can get annoying when you’re in the middle of a reveal only to have to wait for several chapters for it pick up. At times it does slow down the pace, but in hindsight, I really can’t imagine this novel written any other way. We have two narratives in the past and one in the present. And as for the narratives in the past, Lena’s takes place in late imperial Russia and Charlotte‘s in occupied Paris during the Second World War.
Laam does a superb job building the mystery regarding the possibility of Alexandra having had a secret daughter. It’s fascinating and even though Laam’s Secret Daughter is an alternate history, it does make one pause for a bit. Imagine if that reported miscarriage Alexandra suffered in 1902 wasn’t one at all, but fifth daughter was born when they hoped for a son? What a fantastic tale if it were true!
Fans of Russian history may want to add Jennifer Laam’s The Secret Daughter of the Tsar to their list of books to read. If you’re fan of historical fiction, you’ll enjoy this intriguing tale. Overall, I can’t wait to read Laam’s future books.