I spent so much of this book thinking about fate. When we hear stories about ill-fated glamorous lives like the Romanovs, or Princess Diana or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, it seems like we always become enamored with what could have been, what might have been. If only they'd lived.... we think, and imagine how Russian history or William and Harry's lives or films might have been altered.
I can certainly understand this sort of thinking but I don't typically go down that path. Instead, I end up thinking, why so much focus on the lives and time that simply never existed? Why so much focus on their tragic ends instead of deeply and richly appreciating the time they did spend in this world? In these instances I find myself considering the idea of us all having a purpose and a set amount of time to exist, and that's just how it is.
In The Romanov Sisters, Rappaport takes the opportunity to introduce and help us to understand the lives and personalities of the four Romanov sisters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. She explores the insular lives they lived (cut off from society by both their birth and their mother's health/social phobias) but also the richly intimate family life they all shared with one another, their parents, and their brother.
I've always been fascinated by the Romanovs but haven't read much about them, in part because most narratives are focused on the political and war aspects (and rightly so, obviously). I grew up with the conspiracy theory about Anastasia having escaped (do you really think that those intent on assassinating the whole family would've been so careless?), learning about hemophilia because of Alexey, and their assassinations. The four sisters (other than those wishful tales about Anastasia) were pretty much identical blanks slates to me.
But in The Romanov Sisters, we learn the distinct personalities of each:
OLGA: "... was curious and full of questions. Once when a nursemaid reprimanded her for her grumpiness, saying that she had 'got out of bed on the wrong foot', the next morning Olga had pertly asked which was 'the right foot to get out with' so that the 'bad foot won't be able to make me naughty to-day'."
Olga grows up (don't forget, these sisters were all young women when they died, not children) to be simultaneously dignified and puppy-love starved for multiple soldiers who crossed her path.
TATIANA: "...was deeply altruistic and sensitive to what others did for her. On once discovering that her nursemaid and Miss Eagar were paid for their services because they had no money of their own and needed to earn a living, she came to Eagar's bed the next morning and got in and cuddled her, saying 'Anyway, you are not paid for this.'"
Tatiana was strong, empathic, and when the war hit, clearly a born nurse.
MARIA: Was considered pudgy and clumsy (at least compared to her sisters) and "was not especially bright." But she was "open-hearted and sincere" and "when she once sheepishly admitted to stealing a forbidden biscuit from a plate at teatime (her father) was relieved for he had been 'always afraid of the wings growing'. It had made him 'glad to see she is only a human child'."
ANASTASIA: Sounded like she was quite the hellion and in some ways reminds me of my own niece. "Anastasia balked at doing anything she was told; if ordered not to climb on things she did precisely that. When told not to eat apples gathered in the orchard to be baked for nursery supper she deliberately gorged herself and when reprimanded was unrepentant: 'You don't know how good that apple was that I had in the garden', she told Margaretta teasingly."
All people and all parents, no matter their status in life, have faults, but Alexandra and Nicholas at least seemed to love one another and raise their children as best they could. The decisions they made in life started first with what was best for their family. After realizing Alexey was a hemophiliac and even a mild bruise could mean the end of an heir they'd tried for so many years to produce (and loved), they still gave orders that he should be allowed to play as he wanted, unless the situation looked truly dangerous. When Nicholas was contemplating abdicating, he took two primary things into consideration. He could abdicate for himself but not for his son, but that meant that his son would remain in Russia and he and his wife would be exiled and separated from at least Alexey, if not the rest of their children. His further candid conversation with Alexey's pediatrician illuminated that Alexey might live for some time more but likely not for long, and so he chose to abdicate for both himself and his son. However power hungry some other texts may paint Nicholas and Alexandra to be, it does seem as though love and care for their children and one another triumphed. They also seemed helpless in the face of a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situation: During the war, Alexandra built numerous hospitals and she and the two older daughters spent every day, all day, nursing the wounded. They were criticized for stepping down off their pedestals and neglecting to provide untouchable, shining beacons of hope when they were most needed.
This narrative is very sympathetic to the family, as well it should be because the point of this history is really to tell the story of the four sisters and their family, nothing more. There is very little narrative spent on their assassination, and Rasputin is relatively auxiliary, though we do gain a sense of how he influenced Alexandra (through her love for her children). Those stories have been told elsewhere. In The Romanov Sisters, we are gifted a better sense of how these girls were as fascinated with the world around them as the world was with them, and how the years they did live were mostly rich with love and sunlight.