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Reviewed by Vera Pereskokova
I love fiction set in Russia – especially historical fiction – and jumped at the chance to read and review The Girl Who Fought Napoleon by Linda Lafferty.
The Girl is set in late 1700s-early 1800s as the Russian throne shifted from Catherine the Great to Paul I (briefly) and on to his son, Alexander I, and during the Napoleonic wars. As indicated by the title, the book is about a girl – Nadezhda Durova – who, disguised as a man, fought against Napoleon with the Russian cavalry. Durova’s memoir, The Cavalry Maiden (translated into English for the first time in 1988), served as the basis of this novel. Lafferty uses alternating chapters to advance stories of both Durova and Tsar Alexander I; in the later chapters, their stories converged as Durova rose in the ranks and the Tsar became aware of her achievements on the battlefield.
Born to a Ukrainian mother who was desperate for a son, Nadezhda was largely abandoned by her mother as an infant and watched over by one of her father’s orderlies–her father was a captain with the Russian Hussars and the family lived on the road during Nadezhda’s early years. As a result, Nadezhda learned to ride horses when other girls her age learned to be housewives, and as a teenager, ran away from home to join the Russian cavalry. While some (primarily women) saw through her disguise, most were just happy to have another body in the battle. Despite her initial ineptitude, Nadezhda continued to persevere and rose through the ranks, eventually coming to the attention of Tsar Alexander I.
I really wanted to love this book and for the most part, I still enjoyed the story. Unfortunately, I can’t call The Girl a good read because there were simply too many things that bothered me and jarred me out of the narration.
My chief complaint has to do with the dates assigned to individual chapters. As I already mentioned, Lafferty used alternating chapters to separately advance stories of both Durova and Tsar Alexander I. I’d say for about ¼ of the book, the chapters would jump back and forth in time…Nadezhda’s story would be a few years behind Alexander’s then jump ahead almost a decade. Even within Alexander’s own story the dates were not linear–for example, chapter 7 took place in 1789 while his previous chapter (5) took place in 1790. I would also expect the dates – if they are there – to correspond with the events in the chapter but most chapters spanned several years. This may not bother some, but I find dates very important in understanding the timeline of events in historical fiction. As it stands, I was left flipping back and forth between chapters trying to figure out where I was in time and how much time actually progressed within individuals chapters.
I was also less than thrilled with the style of writing. It was simplistic and I would not normally mind this type of a writing style on its own. Unfortunately, every chapter was also chock full of conversations and had very little in terms of descriptions. Throughout the book, I had very little sense of the settings and just felt like I was reading page after page of “he said this” and then “she said that”.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, Durova was supposed to be the focus of The Girl. Sadly, I found myself more interested in Alexander I’s life and almost tempted to skip the chapters where Durova was the sole focus. She was an amazing historical figure and the first known female officer in the Russian – and probably most other countries’ – military. I wish her life was given the treatment that would allow me, as a reader, to be more invested in her story.
Review and giveaway copies were provided free of any obligation by Lake Union Publishing. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.