I love France #28: (2012) #39 review: The Second Empress

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The Second Empress:

A Novel of Napoleon’s Court

by

Michelle MORAN

320 pages

Publication date: by Crown, on August 14th 2012

Ebook provided by NetGalley & Crown/Random House

THIS BOOK COUNTS FOR THE FOLLOWING READING CHALLENGES

 

MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK

How exciting to present you Michelle Moran’s brand new book, The Second Empress, even before publication date!

Since Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution, I have been a great fan of Michelle Moran. Even though I thought this book was not as fantastic as Madame Tussaud, it is still very good.

Moran does as usual a fantastic homework. It shows here, as she inserts many excerpts of letters by her characters, mostly Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his first wife Joséphine, and manages to draw an interesting portrait of the imperial couples.
We get to know what happened between Napoleon and Joséphine, and then more in depth between Napoléon and Marie-Louise, as major episodes of European history develop: Napoleon’s overwhelming power over many nations, followed by his quick fall after his trying to invade Russia, ending in a total disaster.

The chapters and events are presented in turn by three narrators:
Marie-Louise, his very reluctant second wife from Austria;
Pauline, his sister, full of jealousy, just as ambitious as him, and as sex oriented as him (they may even have had some incestuous relationships), and maybe more insane;
and Paul Moreau, Pauline’s Haitian servant for thirteen years.

I liked this triple perspective, especially by characters who are not often considered as central, such as Paul. This was actually really smart to have Paul as close witness to Napoleon’s last six years: Paul is a native from Haiti, and Haiti was always a painful memory to Napoleon, for what he did there.

Marie-Louise’s sacrifice is beautifully rendered: as her great-aunt Marie-Antoinette, she has to leave her lover and the Austrian court for a country she does not know. She hates the idea of being married to Napoleon of ill-fame, but does it uniquely to save her country and her father’s position.

As for Pauline, she is portrayed as insanely in love with Egypt and pushing her brother to try to reach to the eternal grandeur of its pharaohs, hoping of course to share the same fame. She is very sick in her body and her mind.

Through Moran’s narrative, you get a good image of what’s going on. Napoleon is shown in all the insanity of his thirst for power, ambition, but also for his love for his first wife. Unfortunately, she never gave him an heir, hence his second marriage.

His second wife is more like a useful tool for him, and she DOES produce an heir; while married to her, Napoleon still exchanges love messages with his first wife. From the first day she hears about Napoleon’s predicament while a teenager at the Austrian court, Marie-Louise abhors this prospective husband; once married to him, she is delighted when she sees him go away for his foreign campaigns. But she also needs to reign as regent during those times, and her being from Austria does not make her international affairs easy.

We follow her until the fall of the Napoleonic regime, during his exile, and see her finally go back to Austria and marry the man she always loved, after Napoleon passes away.

The only reproach I have for this book is that it could actually have been longer, with even more in depth presentation of the characters. But is is still a very good book, and if you like French historical fiction, you really have to read it.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT

National bestselling author Michelle Moran returns to Paris, this time under the rule of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte as he casts aside his beautiful wife to marry a Hapsburg princess he hopes will bear him a royal heir.

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. [Goodreads]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Moran was born in the San Fernando Valley, CA. She took an interest in writing from an early age, purchasing Writer’s Market and submitting her stories and novellas to publishers from the time she was twelve. When she was accepted into Pomona College she took as many classes as possible in British Literature, particularly Milton, Chaucer, and the Bard. Not surprisingly, she majored in English while she was there. Following a summer in Israel where she worked as a volunteer archaeologist, she earned an MA from the Claremont Graduate University.

Michelle has traveled around the world, from Zimbabwe to India, and her experiences at archaeological sites were what inspired her to write historical fiction. A public high school teacher for six years, Michelle Moran is currently a full-time writer living in California. [goodreads]

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