What I knew about Catherine going into this book: She was a man-hungry woman who died while having sex with a horse.
This book was 100% effective in disproving all of my Catherine knowledge. She was a wise, witty, and educated leader who used every awful experience delivered by her AWFUL childhood/teen-hood/20s-hood to get what she wanted. She loved philosophy and the arts. She was just as progressively minded — if not more so — than her peers at the time. And her lovers gained attention not because of existence or number, but because they were younger.
Massie’s extensive research is evident. You read about how things officially happened, and then he uses letters and accounts from Catherine and others to learn about how things probably happened.
The war history passages were hard for me to get through, because that isn’t my thing. And it’s not really necessary to understand all of it in depth in order to see what the victory/defeat delivered. So don’t feel bad about not committing it all to memory. The number of other characters is overwhelming, but you eventually remember the major players.
Massie ends his acknowledgements in this touching fashion: “Finally, I must acknowledge the extraordinary pleasure I have had in the company of the remarkable woman who has been my subject. After eight years of having her a constant presence in my life, I shall miss her.”
This was an “I *should* read this” book rather than an “I *want* to read this” book. I’m very glad I read it anyway, because even at over 500 pages, it was a treat.