AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Irina Reyn's new novel is about two marriages. It's a dual narrative. One marriage takes place in the present day and the other in imperial Russia, the story of a young Catherine the Great. You'd think that the marriage that takes place in contemporary New York is the modern one, but we could all learn a little something from Catherine the Great. The book is called "The Imperial Wife," and the modern woman is Tanya Kagan. She's a woman many of us would admire. She's a bright, confident Russian immigrant and an expert in Russian art working at a high-end auction house in Manhattan. She's about to go into the biggest auction of her career, a bidding war over a glorious medal worn on a sash by Catherine the Great herself.
IRINA REYN: This is going to be a big deal for her. She's very excited about this. But unfortunately, on the home front, her husband suddenly ups and leaves her without really telling her what's going on. So she's sort of torn between this exciting place in her life career-wise and also this frightening and unknown place with her husband. And then, in the Catherine the Great section, I was really interested in Catherine as a young woman. It begins when she first arrives to Russia from Prussia, when she's 14, almost 15 years old, in 1744, and she's coming to marry the grand duke and hopefully become the mother of his children. But there's some trepidation there because the one time that she's met Peter, he was not so promising (laughter), let's put it that way.
CHANG: What do you mean by that?
REYN: He was very awkward, very sort of unfortunately shaped, kind of unattractive to her, not particularly tactful as a dignitary in royal affairs. So she's a little bit worried about how this is all going to go.
CHANG: So essentially the book is comparing the marriages of two women. So I want to talk a little bit about Tanya and her husband, Carl. You know, Tanya is this assertive, ambitious, decisive woman and Carl is not so much. I mean, he's aware of their differences when they get married, but those differences come into greater relief as time goes on, don't they?
REYN: Yes. I think it was very important to me that part of their differences had to do with the kind of - their kind of ways they had to work for in this country. So Carl is someone who is almost a Mayflower descendant. You know, he comes by Americanness in the most native of ways. And Tanya is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, from Moscow, and someone who had always been pressing her face against the glass of Americanness. So her ambition is very much fueled by her background, and Carl was someone who had it a little bit easier. And this is something that she both admires about him but also something that is very frustrating for her from time to time.
CHANG: There's a moment around the time when they got engaged when Tanya's family teases her. And I was wondering, can you read a little from that part?
CHANG: Maybe you can start with the quote where, I think, her cousin - yeah, Mitya is saying, watch out, Carl.
REYN: (Reading) Watch out, Carl. Hope you know you're dating the CEO over there, a cousin named Mitya calls out. That Tanya always ordered us around, even when she was a little girl. Inevitably, my mother arrives to the rescue. Don't say that, Mitya, afraid that the suitor will be scared off. No man wants a daunting woman. No man wants a woman who earns more than him. No man wants a woman who is too opinionated. No man wants a woman who values career over family. No man wants a woman who is vocal about being confident, who makes the first move, who picks the date activity, who makes a reservation, who has male friends, who does not greet him in full makeup, who serves her own food first, who drives while he's in the passenger seat, who doesn't cook, fails to forgive. Women are very particular things here.
CHANG: I have to say, I've gotten a version of that speech from my own Chinese parents.
REYN: Well, you know, Russian culture is fairly patriarchal. And I think one of the difficult things for someone who's a young immigrant is really trying to navigate her parents' culture and the culture that she finds herself in, American culture. And it's usually, I think, very difficult.
CHANG: Of course, going back to Catherine the Great, there's something almost more modern about Catherine than Tanya, right? I mean, 'cause Catherine ends up taking on lovers all over the place. She does give birth but not to Peter's kids.
CHANG: She rejects the expectations of marriage in a certain way while Tanya, I feel like she still really wants, really needs her husband's approval.
REYN: Yes, which is very ironic, isn't it?
REYN: Three hundred years later that, you know, we're sort of in a more conservative place. I mean, the reason I was conceiving of this Catherine the Great story, I was - it was in 2008, after my first book came out, and I was just watching Hillary Rodham Clinton and her bid for the Democratic nomination. And I have to say, I was reading Catherine the Great's memoirs and I was thinking, my goodness, you know, the way that we talk about Hillary Rodham Clinton is not so different. Like, have we really come that far in 300 years? And just thinking about the distrust and threat of the powerful woman was something that really just spurned the first sort of germs of this book.
CHANG: In the book, throughout the story, we know that something unspeakable had happened between Tanya and Carl. And we don't find out what that is until the very last few pages of the book. And I'm not going to give anything away, but what transpired between them, essentially, was about Tanya, in the way she knew how, trying to elevate Carl. And yet, that was what was so cataclysmic between the two. Do you think that, in a marriage, when a woman is more capable or stronger than her husband that she still needs to make an effort to protect the ego of her husband?
REYN: Well, it's certainly hard to speak about this globally. And I think that that's why, in the book, I made her an immigrant because, well, you know, I can't speak for how this would work with women who are even more American than I am, born here. But I just knew that protecting male egos is something that is very much ingrained in a patriarchal culture. There's something to be, you know, thought about evening out the power structure a little bit more. And interestingly enough, in the Catherine the Great section, she doesn't really do that (laughter).
CHANG: No. I mean, she ultimately grabs power away from her husband through a coup.
REYN: Exactly. She, you know, she does away with that problem. But, you know, these are just - these are women facing sort of similar situations in their marriages, you know? But I think they're so much more competent than the men around them, and yet it is the men that are being handed all these opportunities, whether they're worthy of them or not. And I think that these two women are dealing with that issue in their own way.
CHANG: So who's the role model here? Is it Tanya or Catherine the Great?
REYN: I don't think I could write fiction with the idea of a role model. I think that they're both women that are so much of their own time, they're grappling with having these strengths, these innate strengths that they have. And what I found really fascinating about Catherine is when I realized, wait a minute, she's kind of an immigrant like me. She came at 14 years old. I came when I was 7. She's also had to sort of assimilate in this new culture and learn a new language, a new religion. Of course, I only had to learn a new language and make friends at school. She had bigger problems.
But sometimes being an immigrant means you have to tap into certain kind of strengths, and that's where I thought that the parallels between the two women lay for me, that they were both women who had these innate strengths and partly because they had to overcome these obstacles of coming to this new place and adjusting, and more than adjusting, flourishing.
CHANG: Irina Reyn - her book is called "The Imperial Wife." Thank you so much for joining us, Irina.
REYN: Thank you. It was such a pleasure to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.