Catherine the Great and the Small is an unabashedly feminist coming-of-age story in which Katarina, the heroine, refuses to settle down and live happily ever after.
Framed as a first-person memoir, the story begins with Katarina approaching puberty in the late 1970s in Titograd, Montenegro (a republic of Yugoslavia). We follow her through adolescence and high school into her university days in Belgrade, Serbia, in the 1980s, where her relationships with her best friend, her boyfriend, and her landlady are deep and complicated. These relationships (and Katarina herself) unravel just as Yugoslavia is boiling over into prewar chaos. Katarina eventually picks herself up, returns home, and finds some measure of professional success despite the wartime economy. Her urge to settle down coincides with a proposal of marriage by an ambitious hometown boy, and Part I closes with the pair leaving Montenegro and the war behind. Part II begins years later, with Katarina in London, her marriage failing, with three teenage children, trying to find or forge some sense of self after devoting so many years to her husband and children in a foreign country. A death in the family brings her back to Montenegro for the first time. She begins to understand herself through encounters with old friends and with her long-lost aunt, who herself has recently returned after decades in the United States. And finally, she is reunited with her first love. But it’s not over yet – she still has a husband and children, and everyone’s lives are complicated and far-flung. There are things to be happy about, but will they last forever after? Katarina shrugs off the question – she’s taking what happiness she can and moving on to the next adventure.
The book is populated with complex female characters who maneuver through and negotiate the societal expectations of their age. Katarina shares her feelings and sharp observations with candor and humor; her vulnerability and uncertainty on the inside, juxtaposed with her brash and confident exterior, ring true across continents and generations.