#20BacklistIn2020 · 2020 Reviews · contemporary fiction · dual time frame · historical fiction

#20BACKLISTIN2020 Backlist Book Challenge: The Imperial Wife by Irina Reyn

2020 backlist challenge graphic

In a desperate bid to reduce the books that are collecting dust on my TBR shelves, I have decided to collaborate with another avid reader and fellow book reviewer, Nicole from Certified Book Addicts. The #20BACKLISTIN2020 challenge is a self paced challenge hosted by Jaylamm.ReadsReading and Sunshine, and Cassidys.Bookshelf. The overall goal of this challenge is to read 20 titles from the backlist books that are currently sitting on your TBR pile. For this challenge I will be reading non review books and taking my selections directly from my chock-a-block TBR bookcases (there are two shelved back to back). I will be publishing my reviews of these books on my blog and social media sites on the first and third Tuesday of the month.

Book #19 in the #20BACKLISTIN2020 challenge

Estimated TBR Shelf Life: 3 years

Tanya Kagan, a rising specialist in Russian art at a top New York auction house, is trying to entice Russia’s wealthy oligarchs to bid on the biggest sale of her career, The Order of Saint Catherine, while making sense of the sudden and unexplained departure of her husband.

As questions arise over the provenance of the Order and auction fever kicks in, Reyn takes us into the world of Catherine the Great, the infamous eighteenth-century empress who may have owned the priceless artefact, and who it turns out faced many of the same issues Tanya wrestles with in her own life.


Two dominant forces, separated by time and distance, share parallel experiences on the pages of Irina Reyn’s The Imperial Wife. A story of the auction house world, money, power, authority, royalty, careers and marriage, The Imperial Wife links two unlikely lives together in an ambitious dual narrative style tale.

Two stories featuring Tanya Kagan in the present day and Catherine the Great, the eighteenth century empress, collide in The Imperial Wife. Tanya the modern day central protagonist, is the daughter of Russian immigrants. Tanya has worked hard to gain a position at a New York auction house. Tanya is about to embark on the most life changing auction of her career, while at the same time dealing with the demise of her marriage. As Tanya prepares for this lucrative sale, she is drawn back into the past. A story gradually unfolds linking to a famous medallion that is currently up for auction at Tanya’s place of employment. Secrets of the precious medallion are exposed, which in turn helps Tanya to gain some much needed clarity in regards to the troubles she is facing in her own life. What becomes clear is that despite the passage of time, the heavy burden of marriage versus ambition is just as much a problem for this modern day woman as it was for a very famous female ruler in the past.

The Imperial Wife is a book I purchased some years ago when it was first published due to my fascination for both Russian culture and the auction world. The Imperial Wife managed to cover both bases perfectly from the synopsis. The lure of a dual timeline narrative, crossing present day New York, with Russia in the eighteenth century greatly appealed to me. I couldn’t wait to lose myself in the pages of Irina Reyn’s novel.

I was quite taken with this novel in the beginning. I was soon invested in Tanya Kagan’s present day issues. I could sympathise readily with Tanya’s inability to reconcile her ambitions and career with her faltering marriage. I really did feel for this woman. Equally, I liked the focus placed on the experience of being the daughter of immigrants to America from the former Soviet Union. Reyn does a good job of illuminating this difficult experience in terms of achieving acceptance and assimilation, without casting aside your family roots. I have really enjoyed a number of other novels that have looked at the work of auction houses and the art world. I think this segment of the book was outlined well by Irina Reyn. I did feel as though I had gleaned something new about the business of high end auctions.

In terms of the historical narrative I did feel as though I wanted more. Catherine the Great is such a strong a commanding force from history, but she just didn’t shine for me on the pages of The Imperial Wife. Catherine was a character we seemed to get a glimpse from at a distance. This arm’s length style perspective was not quite what I was expecting. Historically, Irina Reyn manages to covey the key aspects and facts from this time well, with a good air of authenticity. However, I felt like I lost my way a few times during the course of The Imperial Wife.

The medallion, the order of Saint Catherine which is both the subject of the sale and Catherine the Great’s set piece, was my main source of motivation for continuing to read on. I was inspired to look up the medallion online, just to see if for myself. This detailed, complex and often multi layered book presents the reader with a barrage of information in regards to Russian royalty, politics, culture, society, customs and language. I consider myself quite the fan in regards to anything Russian history related and I did find this element of the novel interesting.

All in all I was left at odds with this one. Whilst I appreciated the rich tapestry of detail in regards to Russia, the auction world, art, culture, royalty, marital problems across the ages and ambition, I can’t say that I completely liked or disliked this one. The Imperial Wife wasn’t a triumph and it wasn’t a complete disappointment either.

*** 3 stars

The Imperial Wife by Irina Reyn was published on 1st August 2017 by Pan Macmillan. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here. 

To learn more about the author of The Imperial Wife, Irina Reyn, visit here.

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