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Thursday, April 25, 2013

The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

Title: The House of Special Purpose 

Author: John Boyne

ISBN: 1590515994

Publisher:  Other Press

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: e-book

Pages:  480 pgs

Publication Date: April 2, 2013 (first published Jan 1 2007)

How I Read It: Received from publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 3 Crowns

Synopsis: Part love story, part historical epic, part tragedy, The House of Special Purpose illuminates an empire at the end of its reign. Eighty-year-old Georgy Jachmenev is haunted by his past—a past of death, suffering, and scandal that will stay with him until the end of his days. Living in England with his beloved wife, Zoya, Georgy prepares to make one final journey back to the Russia he once knew and loved, the Russia that both destroyed and defined him. As Georgy remembers days gone by, we are transported to St. Petersburg, to the Winter Palace of the czar, in the early twentieth century—a time of change, threat, and bloody revolution. As Georgy overturns the most painful stone of all, we uncover the story of the house of special purpose.

My Thoughts: John Boyne completely knocked my socks off with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  When I saw The House of Special Purpose which tells of the downfall of the Romanovs through the eyes of Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev-a boy from the impoverished village of Kashin whose heroic act changes his fortunes and puts him in the employ of the Imperial family-I was very eager to read it.  Other than Robert Alexander's The Kitchen Boy which I loved, I have searched in vain for a good book about the Romanovs and hoped this might be it.  In some respects it was an excellent book.  In other ways it left me wishing for a bit more.

The story begins in 1980's London England as an elderly Georgy is dealt the devastating blow of learning his beloved wife Zoya is terminally ill.  As he sits by her bedside he recalls their life together and the story slowly unfolds of how a poor peasant boy ends up a bodyguard to Russian royalty and eventually ends up in London England.  Georgy's story is an interesting one and overall he is a likable character although he does have some darker moments in his past.  He is extremely loyal to the Tsar and his family and although there are a few bumps in the road while adjusting from peasant to palace life, Georgy soon earns the trust of Tsar Nicholas and the friendship of the Tsarevich Alexei.  Boyne does an excellent job evoking life in the Winter Palace during this chaotic time in history. Georgy shares in the apprehension of Tsar Nicholas and his family as it becomes clear the danger to his throne is imminent.  I particularly liked his portrayal of Rasputin which doesn't go the extreme mad man route I've seen time and again. Amidst the political turmoil a touching romance unfolds which also plays a central theme in the book.

House of Special Purpose moves back and forth from 1980s London to revolutionary Russia.  In some instances I like books that use this device to tell a story and for the most part it worked here, There were instances however when Boyne would mention a character I had never heard of before and I would have to wait until the story progressed to find out how the person fit into it all.  As with most books that move from present to past, I had a bigger connection with the past storyline than I did with the one set in present times. The biggest qualm I had in reading the book was there was a big reveal towards the end that I think was supposed to surprise the reader.  Unfortunately, this revelation did not come as much of a surprise at all and I think for most readers it won't.  Also, the story really got bogged down and dragged in spots which made for some very slow reading until it picked back up again.  Overall, this was a good story with a unique narrator but I am still searching for my "wow" book on the Romanovs.

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