Book review: “I Was Anastasia” by Ariel Lawhon

by Rebecca Henderson Palmer on January 15, 2018

In 1920 Berlin, a young woman attempts to end her life by throwing herself off a bridge. She is sent first to a hospital and then to an asylum where she refuses to provide any background information or give her name. It’s there that someone first “recognizes” her as Grand Duchess Tatiana, a daughter of the recently deposed Russian Tsar Nicholas II, whose precise fate at the hands of the Bolsheviks is murky. The woman eventually claims to be not Tatiana but her younger sister Anastasia. Even when news leaks out of Russia that the entire Romanov family was murdered in the summer of 1918, doubt remains. The woman, who comes to be known as “Anna” claims she escaped just before the slaughter. So begins a decades-long journey across many countries to provide to the larger Romanov clan, to a Hollywood star, to the international press, and to numerous justice systems that this traumatized woman is truly a grand duchess, and not a mentally ill former Polish factory worker as the Schanzkowska family claims. Shuttled between benefactors, many rich emigres and Romanov relatives temporarily come to her assistance, but who is friend and who is foe? Anna’s quick mind and clever come backs prohibit them from labeling her insane, and yet with such little evidence about the Romanovs’ final days, few can say for sure. No court is able to provide conclusive proof one way or the other, and the court of public opinion remains divided.

This tale is wonderfully written. Even though history tells us that DNA eventually disproved Anna’s claim of royal heritage, the book keeps you on your toes, hopping back and forth in history, telling bits of the story here and filling in pieces there, so pay close attention to weave the whole story together. Seemingly inconsequential items and conversations link the scenes together:  a letter opener, a photo album, pets, scars. They become parts of a larger story that is intricate and engaging as a lone woman clings desperately to an identity that may or may not be hers. Meanwhile, well-meaning people battle with opportunists, skeptics, and manipulators, everyone with their own agenda. It’s a very human tale when facts are short and determining the truth has enormous consequences. Well worth the read even though Anna’s true identity is now known. This is an inside look into what happens when much is at stake, and people want a fantasy to be real, even when evidence suggests otherwise.

Many thanks to NetGalley for providing a free copy in exchange for my review. This book is released on March 27, 2018.

Amazon link is here.

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