Book Review: I was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

I love the story of Anastasia. Since I was a child watching the 1997 animated musical of the same name, I’ve been fascinated by both Russian history and the tragic story of Anastasia. I’ve watched multiple movies and read several books on the topic.

For those who are unfamiliar with the topic, Anastasia was the youngest daughter of the last Tzar of Russia, who was killed along with his entire family in 1918, shot by the Bolshevik police. However, Anastasia’s body was never discovered, making some people believe she had survived. This rumor was made even more interesting when a woman named Anna Anderson came forward claiming to be Anastasia.

I was particularly happy (though happy may be an insensitive choice of wording) when Anastasia’s body was finally discovered and identified 2007. I was about thirteen or so at that time and the truth had finally been revealed. However, people still continue to write books in this topic and I continue to read them. Sometimes they are great books and other times, like this one, they fall a bit short.

Release: March 27th, 2018

Synopsis: In 1918, the Romanov family, including the youngest daughter Anastasia, were executed by the Bolshevik secret police under order of Vladimir Lenin. In 1920, a young woman with a resemblance to the presumed dead Russian princess was pulled out of a river in Germany. She was taken to a hospital, where she claimed to be the missing Anastasia. So unfolds the fictional story of Anna Anderson, the most famous woman claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

Non-spoiler Review

This book had the potential of being great, but did pretty much everything wrong to ruin that potential. The book is extremely slow-moving, even for a historical novel and felt like it was five hundred pages instead of three hundred. The timeline jumped around so much I had to make notes of what happened when and even then I was confused. Anna Anderson was an interesting character, though neither likeably nor sympathetic, but none of the other characters stood out to me at all. Some of the nonfiction elements, like the character of Maria Rasputin (I did not know Rasputin had children) and the flashbacks to the Romanovs in captivity in 1917, were really interesting, but these tidbits were so rare and far between I struggled to even finish this book.

My biggest critique had to be the time line. The book is set between 1917 and the 1960s (I think, though a few chapters might have been during the 70s, but I couldn’t keep track). One chapter would be in the 1960s, the next in 1917, the next in 1956, the next in 1934, the next 1920…you get the picture. It jumped around way too much.

Now, I don’t mind books that jump around a bit. There seems to be a fad in recent novels to have two parallel plots, one in the modern day and one back in history (just look at books like The Address by Fiona Davis or The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman). But when a book jumps around as much as this one with little rhyme or reason, it only works to confuse the reader. And sadly, this would be rather easy to fix just by rearranging some of the chapters.

Next is my problem with Anna Anderson. She isn’t likeable or sympathetic. I get it. Sometimes there can be stories with unlikeable protagonists (just look at Macbeth by Shakespeare). And yet even these you understand. The problem with Anna is that she is an enigma. She is selfish, and yet her motivations are never explained. You never root for her or hope she will succeed. But you also couldn’t understand her enough to root against her. She was just a poor protagonist, in my opinion. I rather wished the story had been told from any outside perspective.

I’m going to give an example of The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I haven’t read the book, but I watched the movie and I was thoroughly impressed. It’s about a writer who is hired by an old wealthy woman to write her story when she was a young girl. It’s a historical suspense, and one where you are constantly questioning the truth. Yes, the old wealthy woman has many secrets, but because we see everything from the writer’s perspective, we don’t mind this.

Whereas with this book, Anna keeps the truth from the reader, but when we are in her perspective, there is no reason to do this. It is just the writer purposefully keeping info from the reader that her character knows.

But nothing bothered me so much as the ending!

Spoilers Ahead!

In real life, Anastasia died. I honestly wasn’t sure how Lawhon was going to handle the ending. In real life, if Anastasia died, then Anna Anderson was an impostor. There is no way around this reality. So I wasn’t sure if Lawhon was going to choose a fictional side (meaning Anna Anderson was really Anastasia) or reveal Anna to be an impostor.

I am glad the author chose the latter. The book ends with Anastasia dying and Anna admitting she is not the Romanov princess. And then what does she say, and I quote, “I am the one who stopped her from being a tragic footnote in history. I kept Anastasia Romanov alive for decades. She needed me…You wanted to believe I was Anastasia.”

Really? That’s all we get. A short epilogue admitting the truth in Anna’s words…It was disappointing, to say the least.


This book had some good moments and besides the confusing timeline it wasn’t horribly written. But for me it fell short of the lush historical details that so many other authors have explored when it comes to this topic. There are hundreds of books about Anastasia out there, and this one is certainly not at the top.

Have you read this book? Did you like it? Also, what are your thoughts about Anastasia and Anna Anderson in general? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more madness and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

10 thoughts on “Book Review: I was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

    1. Depends on the adaptation of the Titanic. The most famous one in 1997 (starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) is absolutely horrible (though the cinematography is beautiful). Even the romance is shallow and silly, and the historical accuracy is mediocre at best. Though I have enjoyed other movies on that topic. A Night to Remember (1958) is an amazing movie, and Saving the Titanic (2012) is a moving drama about the engineers in the Titanic.

      I haven’t read any fiction Titanic stories, though, only nonfiction ones. It does make for a compelling idea for a story, however.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I haven’t heard of that book. I’ll have to check it out. I have watched the adaptation with Robert Wagner in 1953. It’s a beautiful movie to watch, though a bit too much romance for my taste.


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