Thursday, December 05, 2013

365 (2013 #49). Becoming Josephine

by Heather Webb

In 1814, Empress Josephine learns of the arrest of her former husband, Napoleon I of France, and begins to reminisce about her life.  We flash back to 1779 on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean, and meet 16-year-old Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, daughter of a Creole sugar plantation owner.

The book follows her life over the next 30 years, through her tumultuous first marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais and the birth of their two children, their imprisonment in the Reign of Terror and Alexandre's death, and her efforts to survive as a widow with children, often using her sexuality to get what she wants or needs.

She meets Napoleon Bonaparte, six years younger, during this period, and marries him about a year later, in 1796.  Although she doesn't love him, she is 33 and she knows she isn't getting any younger, and Bonaparte is crazy about her.  He starts to call her Josephine - and indeed, she has reinvented herself.

As the ambitious Napoleon rises in power, Josephine finds herself falling in love with him, despite her despicable Bonaparte in-laws who are out to discredit her any way they can.  Eventually Josephine's love leads her to agree to step aside when she is unable to have more children and Napoleon divorces her in 1809, when she is 46.  She retires to her beloved estate, Malmaison.

This is an excellent debut by Heather Webb, a freelance editor who majored in French and cultural geography.  She really humanizes this woman of history and makes her into a person I cared about.  Her descriptive passages evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of Josephine's tropical homeland, the Paris of her era, her horrendous prison during the Reign of Terror, and the rigors of travel (by land and by sea) in that time period.  I was already very familiar with Josephine's life story, but this book gave me some insights into her character.

On both her website and in an author's note at the end of the book, Webb lists what's true and not true in her novel, and it's clear she's done her research.  She also has some great resources for book clubs, including discussion questions and a suggested menu for the meeting, photographs of places and paintings of people mentioned in the story, fun facts, and suggested further reading.

I'd like to suggest another book for the latter list.  Désirée, by Annemarie Selink, written in 1953, is actually about Napoleon's first love (Désirée Clary, who went on to become Queen of Sweden), but Josephine is a major character in the story. Readers of Becoming Josephine would like it because the style is similar - a first-person narrative covering most of the main character's life, who lived in the same era as Josephine and encountered many of the same people.

I would recommend Becoming Josephine as an enjoyable way to learn more about the fascinating woman who was Napoleon's first and most beloved wife.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I received this advance reader's edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

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