Thank you to guest author Kerry Gillard for her insightful review!
I have always had a preference for reading science fiction, fantasy and horror, so I was a little wary of joining a book club; I was unsure that I would actually enjoy many of the books that were chosen. Surprisingly, I found it refreshing to read other genres, and have new interest in historical fiction that I would never have come to without the book club.
Our latest book fell into this category. The Second Empress, while stating clearly that it is a work of fiction, references many actual historic documents from the time of Napoleon that the author used to write her book, as well as using actual letters from Napoleon as footnotes to chapters.
The story begins with Napoleon deciding that he must divorce Josephine, the true love of his life, as she is unable to provide him with an heir. Word goes out to nobility around Europe requesting paintings of eligible princesses so that Napoleon can make his choice. Marie Lucia is a 19 year old Austrian princess whose father is pressured by his advisors to consent to the marriage in order to save Austria from conquest. A loyal daughter of Austria, Marie Lucia agrees to the marriage despite the fact that she already has a suitor in Austria.
Pauline, Napoleon’s sister, is enraged at the marriage due to her infatuation with her brother and her wish for him to conquer Egypt and rule with her at his side, as a sister-wife in the ways of old Egypt. Her incestuous affair with her brother, although alluded to, is not confirmed in historical documents and this is very much how it is dealt with in this book. Her manservant, Paul, is the only one that she confides in about her plans with Napoleon. Paul, originally from Haiti, returned to France with Pauline after Napoleon conquered Haiti. He loved her, and as the story progresses he is faced with a difficult choice.
The book is written in the first-person from the perspective of these three very different people: Marie Lucia, Pauline Bonaparte and Paul Moreau. I was a little nervous about multiple first-person narratives; I have read other books that did not do this well. However, each character was written in a way that was completely individual, and at no point did I have to refer back to the beginning of the chapter to see who was narrating.
I found the writing style to be an interesting combination of modern language and the language of the time so that you got an insight into how the nobility of that time thought and spoke, without getting mired in language that wasn’t clear. There was a lot of detail relating to the characters themselves and their surroundings that was cleverly written in the first-person without making it seem like it was extraneous narrative. One example of this is when Pauline was talking about her Egyptian room and, through that describing it to the reader, it felt completely in character.
I did feel that the end of the book wasn’t as strong as the beginning. This could have been due to the fact that towards the end there was a greater span of time between the chapters but with nothing to explain what happened in between. I felt that the ending was almost rushed, as if she had to finish in a certain time or number of pages and maybe had to cut out some other narrative. I may be wrong about that but that is the impression I got, and having discussed it with the book club, it seems this was a common thought.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book and it certainly rekindled an interest in the era of Napoleon, as well as a wish to read other books by Michelle Moran. She has also written books about ancient Egypt, another subject close to my heart, and based on my enjoyment of this book I will definitely be looking to read these.