This is the story of Catherine the Great's servant and friend Varvara Nikolayevna and her rise to fortune after many long years working as a palace tongue. Varvara Nikolayevna is born the daughter of a bookbinder father who takes his craft seriously. He and his wife have high hopes for their daughter. But upon their deaths, Varvara's bright future is insecure. Because of her father's good work for Queen Elizabeth of Russia, Varvara is at least accepted into the Queen's court as a seamstress. Varvara spends her days working extremely hard. She knows her parents wanted more for her than a job in the palace basement as a lowly seamstress, but the chief maid has no sympathy for Varvara. Varvara is always cold in the cellars of the palace and all she has to eat is stale bread and small rations of soup. She grows thin and hopeless and decides that the least she can do is find some happiness in the one thing her father valued. Literature.
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Varvara begins sneaking out of her shabby dwellings at night to explore the upper floors of the palace. One night, relaxing in one of the palace's libraries, she makes the acquaintance of a favored and ambitious Chancellor for the Sovereignty. Chancellor Bestuzhev takes a liking to Varvara and decides to take her under his tutelage to become a tongue for the palace. Being a palace tongue is no easy feat. It involves lying and conniving to get the chips to fall in your favor. Varvara is happy at first, learning the secrets of what it means to be a spymaster. But before long, things get dangerous. When a young Catherine the Great, arrives at the palace and she and Varvara grow close, Varvara realizes that her position as a spy is not easy when friendship enters the picture. Varvara wants to please the Queen but she also realizes that her days will soon come to an end. With this knowledge Varvara has to become crafty in serving two mistresses.
When Queen Elizabeth dies, Varvara finds herself shut out of the inner circle of the Queen's nephew, Peter the Great. Peter and Catherine have never gotten along and now that he has a mistress to keep him happy, things are much icier than they've ever been. In the face of losing power forever, Catherine the Great takes bold measures to claim her right as the ruler of Russia, under the auspice of regent for her son Paul, and Varvara must decide whether or not she will risk everything to back her friend and mistress. This includes kidnapping Paul, the son of Catherine and Peter, and bringing him safely to his mother's side. An act that could cause Varvara to lose everything, including her young daughter, After Varvara decides to support her friend, when all is said and done, Varvara realizes that she was never Catherine the Great's only tongue and that their friendship may not have been that important to the Queen after all, even after everything she's risked. In the end, Varvara must decide to move on with life for herself and her young daughter. This is a tale of loyalty, betrayal and a friendship of two diabolical women in 18th century Russia.
Best part of story, including ending:
I loved the lyricism in many of the sentences of this book. Stachniak has a gift for weaving together language in a unique, intriguing way. There were many places in the novel where I re-read passages simply for the lyrical beauty.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was the point in the novel where Chancellor Bestuzhev seduces Varvara. I loved this scene because the language, cuisine, smells and colors were all so very sensual and sumptuous. I really felt transported to this place and time. What made this scene even more heightened was the fact that Varvara had been near starving, so having a night of pure gluttony and abandon seemed even more intense to me as the reader.
Opinion about the main character:
I liked that Varvara was so intelligent and rational. Although she did what she had to do to survive in the beginning upon her parents' death, Varvara never seemed intoxicated by her power or reckless. There were a lot of places in the book where she could have decided to move with only her interests in mind but she never did. It seemed she was always thinking of others; her daughter, Catherine.
She was not as ambitious as others might have been in her shoes. Even when she and Chancellor Bestuzhev fell out, Varvara was never completely mean or cold to him, like he had been with her, throwing her out when she was no longer useful to him. Varvara was always trying to be the voice of ration and solace. Of all the characters, I admired her the most for her rationale and Elizabeth for her hedonism.