In Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, we will read the story of how a minor German princess became one of the most powerful women in history by embracing her new Russian culture, by educating herself through deep and voracious reading, and by carefully observing human nature. This is biography in the grand, old-fashioned, great-person style, but Massie gives it a personal, approachable, feminist twist--the subtitle, after all, is "Portrait of a Woman" rather than "Portrait of a Ruler." In fact, half of this biography is devoted to the years before Catherine became empress. Massie said in an interview with Charles McGrath in the New York Times, "The story of how she got there is just as interesting if not as historically relevant as what she accomplished on the throne. . . . Four of my children are daughters, and I've watched them devote themselves to reading books about how little girls learn to become women--how they learn to deal with boys and men, and the different hurdles females have to go over. So it's the pre-imperial Catherine who keeps putting herself in front of me." How did Catherine change from the docile girl Sophia to the powerful Empress Catherine the Great? What role did chance and coincidence play, and what role did her own character play? As Kathryn Harrison notes in her New York Times review, Massie "has always been a biographer with the instincts of a novelist. He understands plot--fate--as a function of character, and the narrative perspective he establishes and maintains, a vision tightly aligned with that of his subject, convinces a reader he's not so much looking at Catherine the Great as he is out of her eyes." Is Massie successful in bringing Catherine to life for his readers? Do you understand her decisions both personal and political? And do you enjoy this immersive reading experience? Or do you feel, as the reviewer for Kirkus Reviews does, that Massie manipulates us with "these lowbrow historical techniques"?
We hope you will join us: Tuesday, May 7, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, May 16, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.