Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great

Written by Eva Stachniak
Review by Ilysa Magnus

It is 9 AM on November 5, 1796. Catherine II, Empress of Russia, is 67 years old. Her splitting headache is followed by numbness in her hand. By the time her attendants find her minutes later on the floor of her privy, she has suffered a massive stroke.

During the next 36 hours, Catherine, who cannot communicate, relives her life, from her days as the young and innocent Princess Sophie to being the most powerful woman of her time. Using vignettes peppered with returns to Catherine’s sick bed, Stachniak tells the story of Catherine’s family, her marriage, her “favorites,” her successes and failures. The purported insatiable sexual desires that have sometimes colored opinions about Catherine’s success in building an enormous and powerful empire are underplayed in many instances. (Indeed, were she a man, those sexual liaisons would have had no part in determining her success as a ruler.) Her most significant liaison with the man she called Grishenka – the man who helped her build her empire and the highest in the pantheon of “favorites” – is the glue that holds the story together, even after Grishenka’s death. The other glue is her distaste for her inadequate son and her abiding love and devotion for her grandchildren, whose stories form a significant portion of the last segment of the book.

Although the novel read quickly and it was absorbing, I found myself at the end asking whether I thought it was a recommended read – a situation in which I rarely find myself. After reconsidering how I felt about Catherine – somewhat distanced and not being able to bond with her on a consistent level – I decided against a recommendation. The only time I felt close to Catherine, and understood her motivations and feelings, was when her grandchildren played a role in the storyline.