Day 476: The House of Special Purpose

Cover for The House of Special PurposeThe 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.

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4 thoughts on “Day 476: The House of Special Purpose

  1. literaryvittles February 25, 2014 / 10:02 pm

    Sadly, it doesn’t sound too far off from the 1977 animated version of Anastasia. What is it about being being obsessed with supposedly lost princesses??

    • whatmeread February 26, 2014 / 7:38 am

      It focuses more on their marriage and flashes back to the time before, but the climax is the murder of the family. I didn’t see the movie, but yes, I don’t really get that. I read one book a few years ago where it was the Crown Prince who got away, but since he was a hemophiliac, that is even more unlikely.

  2. Cecilia February 26, 2014 / 8:29 am

    Good review! Alas, I think I would have felt the same as you did. That’s too bad. The story seemed promising.

    • whatmeread February 26, 2014 / 8:30 am

      Yes, I love books about Russia, and this is always an interesting period, but the idea is such an overused one!

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