BookBrowse Reviews Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Catherine the Great

Portrait of a Woman

by Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Nov 2011, 656 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2012, 672 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


A narrative biography about one of history's most powerful women, from Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert K. Massie

If you're looking for the one book to pack in your carry-on bag for vacation, this is it. This biography of Catherine the Great from Robert Massie is a hefty volume, worthy of long road trips, quiet country vacations, and weekends dedicated to getting lost in a book. The 574 pages benefit from wide swaths of time that can be spent appreciating this long, complex life story. I was able to read this book while on winter break between semesters and was grateful for a period of (mostly) uninterrupted calm to appreciate the breadth of this biography.

Despite its length and scrupulous detail, Massie's biography does not flag and become overly didactic or formulaic; he appears intent on following every action of Catherine's life, regardless of how small, and on showing these subtle details in the larger scope of her sociopolitical power. He carefully explains and analyzes memoirs, letters, and political essays from both Catherine and her contemporaries and demonstrates a literary critic's knack for extracting meaning from single phrases or words. In doing so, he creates a dramatic tension that is as good as any novel.

Occasionally, however, he incorporates quotations without clear attribution of a source, which is a bit mysterious, but mostly annoying. In spite of these small inconveniences, Massie's writing is consistently clear, unobtrusive, and does not interfere with Catherine's personal story. If anything, his tone matches the grandeur of her life, written with bold, eloquent phrases. Although Massie has a remarkable academic background - he studied at Yale and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford - this biography is not written exclusively for a scholarly audience and will appeal to a wide audience.

The subtitle of this biography is Portrait of a Woman, and Massie makes her humanity very clear. While there are plenty of biographies that chronicle the political lives of eighteenth century Russian aristocracy, few labor to uncover the private, personal lives of those individuals. Perhaps what is most notable about Massie's biography is that it balances Catherine's inner, private life with her public image and actions, and shows how those two roles are closely connected. This linking of what is private and what is political dredges up thoughts about how modern political figures attempt, if at all, to separate the affairs of their personal and professional lives. And though Massie does not directly discuss the ethics of these links, he makes it clear that they are, nevertheless, a vital component of Catherine's life, which is motivated by both personal desires and political clout.

Massie's version of Catherine shows readers a woman who was ambitious, literary, and genuinely admirable. Having sustained a long interest in the life of Catherine's contemporary, Marie Antoinette, I was excited to see a biography of an eighteenth century female political figure receive strong publicity. Like Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great's reputation has been obscured by a fair amount of rumors and myth. It's refreshing to see a new interest in re-examining how her life influenced both Russia and Europe. I hope that as Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette led to a greater appreciation for Antoinette's role in history, so too will Massie's biography aid in developing a clearer, stronger collective memory of Catherine the Great.

Additional Info
To hear Robert K. Massie talk about the life of Catherine the Great, click on NPR's Weekend Edition feature entitled "Catherine the Great: First She Read, Then She Ruled".

This review was originally published in February 2012, and has been updated for the September 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

One-Month Free Membership

Discover your next great read here

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Caught in the Revolution
    Caught in the Revolution
    by Helen Rappaport
    So taken were BookBrowse's First Impression reviewers by the inside look at the start of the Russian...
  • Book Jacket: Hillbilly Elegy
    Hillbilly Elegy
    by J.D. Vance
    In this illuminating memoir, Vance recounts his trajectory from growing up a "hillbilly" in ...
  • Book Jacket: The Dark Flood Rises
    The Dark Flood Rises
    by Margaret Drabble
    Margaret Drabble, the award-winning novelist and literary critic who is approaching eighty and ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J. Church

In the spirit of The Aviator's Wife, this resonant debut spans from World War II through the Vietnam War.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Lola
    by Melissa Scrivner Love

    An astonishing debut crime thriller about an unforgettable woman.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Mercies in Disguise
    by Gina Kolata

    A story of hope, a family's genetic destiny, and the science that rescued them.
    Reader Reviews

Who Said...

Wherever they burn books, in the end will also burn human beings.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

O My D B

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

 
Modal popup -