Thursday, January 10, 2013
The Second Empress
By Michelle Moran
Crown, August 2012
About the Book
After the bloody French Revolution, Emperor Napoleon’s power is absolute. When Marie-Louise, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the king of Austria, is told that the Emperor has demanded her hand in marriage, her father presents her with a terrible choice: marry the cruel, capricious Napoleon, leaving the man she loves and her home forever, or say no, and plunge her country into war.
Marie-Louise knows what she must do, and she travels to France, determined to be a good wife despite Napoleon’s reputation. But lavish parties greet her in Paris, and at the extravagant French court she finds many rivals for her husband’s affection, including Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine, and his sister Pauline, the only woman as ambitious as the emperor himself. Beloved by some and infamous to many, Pauline is fiercely loyal to her brother. She is also convinced that Napoleon is destined to become the modern Pharaoh of Egypt. Indeed, her greatest hope is to rule alongside him as his queen—a brother-sister marriage just as the ancient Egyptian royals practiced. Determined to see this dream come to pass, Pauline embarks on a campaign to undermine the new empress and convince Napoleon to divorce Marie-Louise.
As Pauline’s insightful Haitian servant, Paul, watches these two women clash, he is torn between his love for Pauline and his sympathy for Marie-Louise. But there are greater concerns than Pauline’s jealousy plaguing the court of France. While Napoleon becomes increasingly desperate for an heir, the empire’s peace looks increasingly unstable. When war once again sweeps the continent and bloodshed threatens Marie-Louise’s family in Austria, the second empress is forced to make choices that will determine her place in history—and change the course of her life.
Based on primary resources from the time, The Second Empress takes readers back to Napoleon’s empire, where royals and servants alike live at the whim of one man, and two women vie to change their destinies.
While I don’t claim to be an expert on French history, I enjoyed reading how one author saw the times based on her assessment of what she gathered to support her story line. The Second Empress was an intense, well-written novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. I found it very intriguing for a variety of reasons. For one, it held my attention because of the rich historical setting and many details included in each chapter. Even though the story was set in early 1800s France, in some ways the scenario Moran portrayed reminded me of the downfall of Rome centuries earlier.
Napoleon had many excesses and eccentricities, the relationship with his sister being the most disturbing. His family had to be the poster child for dysfunction in that day, especially when it came to marriage and infidelity. It seemed married people had more contact with lovers than spouses in Napoleon’s court. Since that was the way of things, I didn’t find it surprising that venereal disease was commonplace for promiscuous courtiers. At the time they didn’t know how to cure it, so people suffered horribly from a variety of ineffective treatments including the use of mercury.
I find European history quite fascinating from the Middle Ages all the way through modern times. In The Second Empress I appreciated the many historical details included by the author as well as reading the letters that supported portions of the plot. I have always empathized with people who were forced to marry to preserve kingdom and country. The author included some sexual situations, but she did so tastefully and didn’t gross me out with the details.
I enjoy reading things like the “afterword” at the end of a historical novel and the supporting facts from history that a novel includes. Yes, even weird activities such as women being used as human footstools was documented, so Moran included a scene in the book with that exact scenario. From reading this novel I can’t help but conclude that the entire Bonaparte family was power hungry and incredibly selfish. The author portrayed that well.
All in all this was an engaging novel that fascinated me with its depth. I had a hard time putting it down. I appreciated how the author used a variety of perspectives to show different situations that troubled Marie-Louise and others during that tumultuous time period. Lovers of historical fiction will enjoy reading this book. Are all the historical facts true or not? Well, I always keep in mind that this is fiction.
Healing Hearts . . . fiction making an impact on real lives . . .
New titles released in 2012: Decision to Love, It’s Not About Her, Somebody Love Me,
Out of Time, and Surprise Love