Book Review: ‘The Last Grand Duchess’ by Bryn Turnbull

‘The Last Grand Duchess’ is a work of historical fiction that turns a political story into a personal one. Writing about a book about the history of Russia feels especially odd following this year’s invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Nevertheless, this book chronicles an important part of Russian history that is simultaneously well-known and frequently misunderstood. Readers can look forward to getting to know Grand Duchess Olga, daughter of the last Tsar of Russia in a new and personal way. Bryn Turnbull proves herself yet again and her top-notch abilities to tell a historical story.

Best of Historical Fiction:

Like all good historical fiction narratives, ‘The Last Grand Duchess’ takes a real-life story, and gives it a new perspective. Shining a spotlight on a real-life person who is often forgotten by history is a smart move. There are many takes on the final days of the Russian Empire, and the subsequent killing of the Romanov family. Rather than trying to re-live or redress this actual event, the focus is on one member of the family, who often gets lost to history.

In this story, Olga is sympathetic enough. It makes sense that she’s fairly naive, and mostly clueless to the political intrigue happening outside of the palace walls. It’s easy enough to believe that a Grand Duchess lived in a bubble of such ludicrous privilege and wealth. This is pointed out without mocking the woman herself. By all accounts, at least some of the Romanov family were exposed to a tiny part of the world during their service as nursing sisters. 

New Take on an Old Tragedy:

Relatedly, the nursing service arguably made this incredibly unsympathetic family just a tiny bit more relatable to the Russian people. Unfortunately, it was all too little too late. There was an opportunity to expand on the dynamic between the monarchy and the people, and the issues that led to the people rising up. Of course, it was multi-faceted. The focus of this books is fairly narrow. This isn’t always a bad thing, but there is certainly more context here. 

Rather than focusing on the actual killing of the Romanov family, ‘The Last Grand Duchess’ maintains its insular focus throughout. This leads to a very intimate portrait of Olga as a woman who is trying to come of age with hardly any of the information that she needs. It’s hard not to feel empathy for Olga, who is consistently failed by pretty much everyone around her. Things could have turned out so much differently if different choices were made. 

More Questions Than Answers:

This story doesn’t presume to offer any answers to complicated historical questions. It never makes excuses for the atrocities that the Romanov family was responsible during a reign lasting hundreds of years. There’s no focus on the thousands (if not millions) of people who died over the years under Romanov rule. Olga, the focus of the story, is never shown to be solely responsible for this suffering. However, she can never be fully removed from the family she was born into.

‘The Last Grand Duchess’ walks a fine line between creating sympathy where none is deserved, and focusing on a young woman who was incredibly insulated from the world to her detriment. The tragedy is never overplayed, and never shown to overshadow the damage caused by the Romanov dynasty over hundreds of years. In the end, readers can expect to come away with a melancholic feeling for a young woman who never stood a chance against the tides of history.

The Last Grand Duchess is available now. 

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