A Royal Family in Royal Peril
The early 20th century was a period of great turbulence in many places around the world, and Russia was certainly one of the more prominent ones with a countrywide revolution taking place in 1917. It was a period of terror, death and chaos, one where many prominent people met their maker at the hands of the Bolsheviks. As far as the royal family goes, it's general knowledge that they were all executed with impunity... but over the decades, some people came forward claiming to be the long-lost children of the Romanov family. Ultimately, their claims could never be verified as true, and coupled with the discovery of additional remains that bore the Romanov genes, the hope for the children's survival is now virtually non-existent. However, the romanticism of the notion that at least one of them survived the massacre or managed to perpetrate the family line in secret is as enthralling today as it was back then, and that was the spark Gill Paul needed to write his acclaimed novel, The Secret Wife.
Love in the Time of Romanovs
The book tells two stories in parallel, and in their own ways they are both centred around Tatiana Romanov, one of the three daughters who was believed to have a romance with cavalry officer. As you might imagine, one of them takes us back to the turbulent times of revolutionary Russia in the early 20th century and follows the grand duchess as she develops a passionate romance with Dmitri Malama while nursing his wounds in a war hospital. However, as the revolution grows bigger and bigger it swallows up more notorious families, and soon enough news spread around the country of the Romanovs' execution. Distraught and lost in life, he lands in Berlin after the war and makes the acquaintance of Rosa, but huge doubts loom in the air as to whether or not he can commit himself to her and cast away his irrational hopes of one day seeing Tatiana alive.
|The last Romanov tsar, Nicholas II, was killed, along with his family (seen here in 1913), a year later.|
Now, let us take a big jump to the present day and meet Kitty Fisher, Dmitri's great granddaughter. With her husband having just cheated on her, she takes respite in the shack her great grandfather left her in his will, located in a remote part of the state of New York. She has no real idea of her family's history or where she really comes from... but all of that changes upon the discovery of a jewelled pendant that forces her to spend the summer digging ever-deeper for family secrets that have stayed buried for far too long.
Gill Paul's Skill and Passion
The first thing that jumps to the eyes when reading this book is the amount of detail in which Paul describes early 20th century Russia. It's quite apparent that he has a genuine interest in that period of time and the people who populated it. The text reads with a certain historical passion and his desire to be as accurate and true-to-life as possible is almost transparent. As such, he succeeds where many other historical authors fail: he manages to immerse us in a time gone by long ago, into an age that doesn't really bear any impact on us. It doesn't matter whether you know absolutely nothing about Russia in those days or if you've been chasing down potential Romanov ancestors yourself; you will get sucked into a world rich with beauty and terror in equal measures.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the book is nothing more than a history lesson. Paul obviously spent much effort in crafting an intriguing story that hooks you in and reconciling it with the realism of the world it's being set in. He never sacrifices one for the other and ensures the story always flows at a brisk pace without any dead moments, so to speak. There are some rather evenly-paced twists interspersed throughout the story, with a couple of big surprises that will catch all but the most astute readers off-guard.
The characters themselves are also exceptionally-well developed and could fool the uninformed into thinking this to be some kind of biographical work. They feel and sound as real as anyone you've ever met and their psyches have hidden depths you would rarely expect from fictional characters. Through them, the author takes us on profound explorations of various large themes including love, grief and hope.
To finish things off, The Secret Wife is one of the strongest historical novels I've read in recent memory, holding fast and steady on all fronts. The setting is quite accurate, vivid and memorable in its description, the story is poignant and keeps you guessing, the characters often evoke fascination, and the extent to which the themes are explored leaves us with much to consider. If you enjoy historical romance novels with a fair measure of depth, then this is one I believe you can't afford to miss.
Gill Paul is a British writer from Glasgow known for dabbling in both fiction and non-fiction. Most prominently, she is the author of the Titanic Love Stories (based on the tale of an actual couple on the ship), The Affair and The Secret Wife. She mostly looks forward to writing romance stories in grand historical settings, such as WWI for example.