Sunday Books

This week’s reviews include a new dimension to Lady Macbeth in All Our Yesterdays and the tragic lives of Ella and Alix Romanov in The Romanov Brides.

by Joel H. Morris

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (March 12, 2024)
Hardcover $22.00
Audiobook $16.38

Reviewed by Drew Gallagher

Lady Macbeth gets a bad rap.

All it apparently takes is the world’s greatest playwright portraying her as a calculating and cold wife who assisted in the murder of her first husband, and the world rushes to judgment and labels her a bitch for eternity.

Author Joel H. Morris adds nuance to Lady Macbeth in All Our Yesterdays, which serves as a welcome addition to the growing canon of literature focused on the characters of Shakespeare. (Lady Macbeth is based upon the historic figure of Gruoch who was Queen of Scotland c. 1041, but if you know her best as the historic figure and not as the character washing her hands on stage then this novel might not be for you, and there is a reason you don’t get invited back to book groups.) Shakespeare wrote long before the Me Too movement, but his portrayal of Lady Macbeth might be generously described as unsympathetic.

Morris portrays Lady Macbeth as a woman of dimension rather than one of single-minded ambition and one who vows not to be a victim of her politically dictated marriage and a mere pawn in land grabs of ancient Scotland. Where Shakespeare offers us a Lady Macbeth who is ruthless in assisting in the murder of her first husband, Morris offers that her starter husband may not have been the most loving of husbands and a ferocious father to their son who is referred to simply as “The Boy” in this book. The dramatic tension in All Our Yesterdays lies in the path that Lady Macbeth has chosen for herself and her son, knowing full well that there are murdered bodies in her wake and a future that will inevitably feature a reckoning with The Boy on what happened to his father.

The book is divided into Lady Macbeth’s consideration of events as well as her son’s perspective. Husband Number Two, Macbeth, adopts the boy as his own and is a loving husband whose aspirations do not need to be stoked by his new wife. And they lived happily ever after…

Alas, “happily ever after” is not what the witches in Macbeth prophesized. There is a troubling offshoot to the prophecy of Macbeth’s ascension to the throne that Shakespeare omits but Morris details in full, and that is the ominous future of The Boy who is the love of Lady Macbeth’s life and her sole reason for living as she outlines poignantly:

And “rushing back in” it does for poor Lady Macbeth who is rarely afforded the opportunity to sleep perchance to dream due to what the witches’ forbidding prophecy might hold for her only child. Morris offers a compelling backstory to one of Shakespeare’s great villains and arguably the greatest female character he ever wrote. After reading All Our Yesterdays, it now feels wrong to characterize Lady Macbeth as a villain, and in this telling she certainly qualifies as one of Shakespeare’s great creations. Female or otherwise. 

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second-most-prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 137-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. He aspires to be the second-most-prolific book reviewer in the history of FXBG Advance and is also a founding member of Dads for Puppies. 

By Clare McHugh

Published by William Morrow (March 12, 2024)
Paperback $15.19
Audiobook $20.38

Reviewed by David Arndt

The tragic end of the Russian Imperial family has long captured the hearts of lovers of European royalty. Overthrown during the turmoil of the first World War, the imperial dynasty was exiled to Siberia and then mercilessly executed in the basement of their prison home. Yet, were the players in this woeful tale deserving of their fates? Were they cold, distant figures, or did they have their own relatable backstories? Clare McHugh’s novel The Romanov Brides seeks to narrate the incredible tales of two sisters who married into the Romanov family, dictating their own paths instead of following ones laid out for them.  

The German princesses Ella and Alix, daughters of the Grand Duke of Hesse and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, herself a daughter of Queen Victoria, undergo tragedy from an early age. Diphtheria sweeps through their household, rendering many low but ultimately taking their younger sister and mother. This painful event pushes Alix towards a fervent religious outlook in an attempt to find peace through pious contemplation.

As the girls mature and grow up, dynastic ambitions seek to marry them strategically in order to strengthen the bonds between certain nations. Their ever indomitable grandmother Queen Victoria hopes to secure the ties between Germany and England through such matrimonial pursuits. Her plans are frustrated as the girls are enchanted and captivated by two men from the Imperial Russian family.

Ella is pursued by the austere Serge, brother to Tsar Alexander III. Impressed with his religious zeal, political acumen, and duty to serve his country and his tsar, she marries him, whisking herself away to the remote Russian court with its unique intrigues, customs and decadences.  The cold yet captivating Alix captures the heart of the tsarevich Nicholas, the son of the tsar.  Attracted to him yet concerned with their religious differences, she continuously declines his advances. This changes when she finds a way to reconcile her love for him with her personal faith, allowing the pair to wed.

Dynastic marriages among the royalty of Europe always possessed unique challenges and considerations. Who should marry whom, in order to provide the biggest benefit to both nations?  Yet occasionally love matches were pursued, allowing people to marry each other for personal reasons over the benefits of states. The Romanov Brides tells the story of two women who followed their hearts and married for romantic reasons during this age of matrimonial scheming.

by Martin Davis