There’s a scene in Irina Reyn’s new novel, “The Imperial Wife,” when a group of young Russian women go dancing at a Moscow club. One of Reyn’s main characters, Tanya Kagan, initially thinks that, in her late 30s, she’s too old to join in the fun. But Tanya has a blast on the dance floor with her new friends, rocking out in a designer dress.
Reading this scene, I felt unburdened, too, relieved to see Tanya among people who wanted nothing but companionship from her. She needed a momentary release from her relationships and the way she drives herself in her career, a situation I could well understand.
That I’d come to care about Tanya makes sense. Reyn, the author of the “What Happened to Anna K.,” is a master of creating realistic and nuanced female characters. Although I am single, I saw myself in the two plot lines of “The Imperial Wife,” and in the main characters, two women of very different periods in history whose lives show that marriage, whether arranged or freely undertaken, requires immense effort, which is often not enough to ensure success. Both characters also remind me that women who want to succeed outside the home will face opposition, sometimes within their own partnerships.
The first story is set in the 18th century, chronicling the life of Prussian Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg as she transforms into Catherine the Great, the famous Russian Empress. Sophie is married off as a teenager to the boy who would become Peter III of Russia, and quickly finds that he’s a fool. Sophie is trapped into loveless, sexless union and must find fulfillment outside of her expected path as the producer of royal babies.
In the other plot line, Tanya, a modern-day Russian immigrant living in America, is a Russian art expert for an auction house in Manhattan. She simultaneously tries to keep an important sale of a necklace that once belonged to Catherine on track while attempting to repair her broken marriage to Carl, a novelist who leaves her early in the book. Carl and Tanya are more compatible than Catherine and Peter, but their marriage is wounded.
Reading the novel, I was struck by how Reyn captures the sobering reality that a married person can feel just as alone, even lonelier, than a single person. When I spoke with Reyn, she noted that while reading Catherine’s memoirs, she was moved by the determination the empress showed after realizing her marriage was a bust.
Many women of the time would have settled into a life of luxury. Instead Catherine resolved to live a life of purpose, even without her husband’s love. “It made me think about what that would be like, to know your husband will never love you and there was nothing to be done but turn your mind to your own interests and ambitions,” Reyn said in a phone interview. “I think there are many — even happy — marriages like this, or marriages [that] go through these periods where the little spare time one has must be channeled into one’s own well-being.”
When I asked Reyn why such realizations are rarely explored, she said, “This theme is not entirely compatible with action and forward momentum necessary for fiction.” But, she pointed out, the key for authors may be to show how the characters are spurned, then spurred, into action. “In my book, I think those feelings are being channeled into other things: work, learning a new language, volunteering for important causes, seizing a throne,” she said. “The women allow themselves some wallow time, but they are proactive about making their lives rich and meaningful.”
That a woman’s professional ambition may be out of step with the rest of her life is another theme in the book. Tanya, the auction house executive, particularly struggles with this. Everyone, including her parents, her assistant and Carl, concur that she likes to be in charge. While they seem to admire this quality in her, they also find themselves crowded out by her drive.
I asked Reyn whether she thought Tanya might be happier if she were single, with fewer checks on her ambition. “Would her life be logistically easier? Probably,” she responded. “Ambition is a difficult thing to reconcile with another life on its own path. All sorts of compromises become necessary.”
Perhaps Tanya and Carl are unusually burdened by the intertwining of their pursuits: He is a novelist, who most recently wrote about Catherine the Great. As Reyn says, “Sometimes one is lucky, and the paths are parallel and the road is clear for both partners to pursue their dreams.” But that’s not the case for Carl and Tanya; it’s a source of conflict in the novel.
It’s unusual for a book that explores two marriages to also look so closely at women’s individual lives. I was moved by how both Catherine and Tanya find themselves isolated, shut out from the men they want to be with, whether out of love or a sense of duty. But their loneliness also provides time for them to reflect and know themselves. Catherine makes a new plan for an outlet for her dreams, while Tanya acknowledges a mistake she made out of ambition.
While I am neither royalty nor a glamorous art expert, I saw myself in Tanya and Catherine, perhaps the greatest feat of Reyn’s writing. The big, life-shaping questions she asks for her characters are not answered in the text, just as I cannot answer them in my life. Like Tanya and Catherine, all I can do is keep working and living, hoping that a few glimmers of understanding might appear now and then.