Book Review: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Posted January 1, 2012 by Renae // 2 Comments

Book Review: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Title: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Author: Robert K. Massie
Release Date: November 8, 2011
Publisher: Random House

Summary from Goodreads:

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the GreatNicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history. History offers few stories richer in drama than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, this eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.

What I Liked: I have not read many biographies, so I don’t know if this is the norm or not, but I was very impressed with the way Massie goes beyond just chronicling Catherine’s actions. Yes, he reports her decisions and movements, but he provides insight into the why. Based on thorough and credible research, Massie offers his readers a reason for what this great woman did, gives a glimpse into her state of mind. It was an effective tactic that really solidified the credibility of this book and heightened my enjoyment.

I was also impressed with the scope of the book. Massie surpassed a simple biography, giving rich detail to the Russia Catherine the Great new and loved. The end result was a brilliant political and social overview. On the whole, this book has a wonderful depth of subject and theme.

The first half of the book, I felt, was superb. Because he had Catherine’s own memoirs to refer to, every page was infused with the empress’s wit and intelligence. (At least a third of that portion of the book was made up of direct quotes from Catherine’s memoirs.) The portrait Catherine painted of herself—an ambitious girl determined to gain power at all costs—was charming and still potent.

What I Didn’t Like: Catherine’s memoirs are incomplete, and once the biography reached the point in her life’s story where her own autobiography ends, things began to fell apart for me as a reader.

For one, this discontinuation of her memoirs occured right around the time Catherine gained the throne, so the scope of the book by necessity had to be much greater, even while it was without the empress’s personal testimony. Massie chose to put the majority of Catherine’s reign into a series of related episodes organized by chapter, so that one chapter might look at a period of several years from one angle, and then the next chapter would cover the same timeframe, only with a different focus. This constant back-tracking caused the book to lose momentum, because it never really felt like you were getting anywhere.

I do realize that not to make this organizational decision would have created a confusing narrative, but I still don’t like it particularly.

Verdict: This was an excellent and well-detailed biography. I learned everything I could have wished to know about Catherine the Great—perhaps even more. On the whole I was quite impressed.

Renae has written book reviews and other miscellany for Respiring Thoughts since 2012. She loves dogs, Mexican food, mountains, Shakespeare, and procrastinating. She's currently working on an undergrad degree in English/Spanish lit in the Midwest. Connect with Renae on Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr.

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2 responses to “Book Review: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

  1. I can’t wait to read this book. I’m hoping to get to it in the next few months. I love reading historical biographies. I want to read Massie’s earlier books first.