Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland

I confess, until I read The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., I didn't even know her name wasn't really Josephine.  That was just what Napoleon wished to call her.  Sheesh, and everyone complains about Edward Cullen.

So, anyway, Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie was Josephine Bonaparte's real name and she led quite a life way, answering to the name of Rose, long before meeting the tiny dynamo that was Napoleon.  In Gulland's novel (and I have not read a bio of Josephine so I'll just leave all real events to the historians), Rose grows up on a sugar plantation on Martinique.  A hurricane left her family practically destitute when she was just a little girl and other family tragedies follow throughout her girlhood.  An marriage proposal is offered from a distant cousin in Paris, Alexandre de Beauharnais, but her sister is too sick to make the journey so Rose is offered in her place.  

This is the relationship that takes up most of the story and will eventual land her in a particularly nasty prison.  Two children, a boy and a girl, are borne of their marriage but the relationship sours as he moves up in political circles and begins seek the affections of others.  Unfortunately for them all, the political tides change and suddenly all members of the upper classes are being persecuted, jailed, and guillotined.  The conditions are horrific and Gulland pulls no punches in making you understand how nasty things are.  

Not long after Rose's husband has his date with the guillotine, the political climate changes in her favor and she is released from prison.  She is very aware of her precarious position with the government but is heedless of warnings as she goes about trying to clear her husband's name.  It is as she is moving and negotiating with the politicians over her husband's reputation that she makes the acquaintance of Napoleon.  Their very brief and weird courtship was one of my favorite parts of the novel and make me want to read more about both of them.  The novel ends with their marriage but begins a trilogy so I will have to pick up the next in the series, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, in order to keep up with the newlyweds.

This was some really good historical fiction!  I don't remember ever reading about this side of French history and certainly know that I haven't read much  about The Terror.  Except maybe Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, but that was in high school and I hated every minute of it.  This, I really enjoyed.  Rose is such a strong character in my opinion.  No matter what life threw at her, she found some way (and not always taking the high road I might add) to survive and thrive.  Her devotion to her children was very poignant as well.  Rose's is truly an indomitable spirit.  I don't know how much of that was true in real life, but this novel sets her up to be a great Empress.  

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