Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Random House • $35 • ISBN 9780679456728
To be published November 8, 2011

The fact that I've been anticipating this book for months is no secret to Book Case readers. Having finished it over Labor Day weekend in preparation for interviewing Massie for our November issue, I'm happy to report that this was a book worth waiting for. Eight years in the making, backed up by Massie's decades of research on the Russian family,  Catherine the Great is an expertly crafted page-turner of a life story.

One of the things that makes Massie's biographies so wonderful to read is the way he is able to empathize with his subjects, and try to understand their motivations, without lionizing them. While it's clear he likes and respects Catherine and her accomplishments, he doesn't try to hide her flaws.

Since I know that what many people are curious about when it comes to Catherine the Great is her love life, here's a passage where Massie examines her relationships with a succession of younger "favorites" over the last 20 or so years of her life.

What was Catherine seeking in these ornamental young men? She has suggested that it was love. "I couldn't live for a day without love," she had written in her Memoirs. Love has many forms, however, and she did not mean sexual love alone, but also companionship, warmth, support, intelligence, and, if possible, humor. . . . Desire for love and sex played little part in attracting her lovers to her; they were motivated by ambition, desire for prestige, wealth and, in some cases, power. Catherine knew this. She asked them for things other than simple sexual congress. She wanted an indication of pleasure in her company, a desire to understand her point of view, a willingness to be instructed by her intelligence and experience, an appreciation of her sense of humor, and an ability to make her laugh. The physical side of her relationships offered only brief distraction. When Catherine dismissed lovers, it was not because they lacked virility but because they bored her. One need not be an empress to find it impossible to talk in the morning to a person with whom one has spent the night.

What are you reading this week?

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