The House of Special Purpose is an alternative history novel that looks at the end of the Russian monarchy with just a slightly different twist. It’s a familiar one, though, that Grand Duchess Anastasia escaped the execution of the royal family. Why is it always Anastasia, I wonder? This information is not a spoiler, for it is evident early on.
Most alternative histories start with the change to history and show how things would be different. This one is the portrait of Anastasia’s relationship with the main character, Georgy Danilovich Jachmenev. In fact, history isn’t changed in this novel except for that of a couple of people.
Unfortunately for my enjoyment of this novel, I could not suspend my disbelief for two of the foundations of the plot. The first is that the Tsar would appoint a peasant’s son, Georgy, to guard the Tsarevich Alexei on the basis of one incident, misunderstood as bravery. The second, even more vitally, is that Anastasia would give a boy with this background, and presumably no education (although oddly well spoken), the time of day. That she would throw herself into a love affair with him almost at first sight is utterly unbelievable. It is unlikely that he would even have been allowed to talk to her.
I’m not sure why Boyne had to stretch our disbelief so far. He could have made our hero a minor member of nobility or even a middle class boy and I would have bought it. Think me elitist if you will, but I don’t believe Boyne has any idea what life was like in the Russian peasantry.
With this problem always in mind, it was difficult for me to enjoy the novel, which, except for journeys back to the past, is about a fairly complex marriage. But again, it doesn’t deal with, for example, any difficulties Anastasia—or Zoya as she is called through most of the novel—might have had coping with the problems of a normal, even impoverished life. We skim over things like that, as well as how effortlessly Georgy seems to adjust to life in the Winter Palace. Or whether in post-revolutionary Russia, any couple could just jump on a train and travel to Paris without identity papers.
So, on the one hand I was absorbed by the novel at times, on the other it seemed too unrealistic. It is well written, and Georgy and Zoya are appealing characters, but it does not, in the end, constitute a convincing story.