The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon's Court by Michelle Moran
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Where I got the book: electronic ARC from Edelweiss.
I don't think I've read a novel about Napoleon (this one doesn't really count) since
, so Moran gets points for tackling what feels to me like a neglected historical niche (unless there's a whole slew of Napoleon books I don't know about somewhere). This story covers the latter part of the French Emperor's reign, when Napoleon starts getting dynastic ambitions and divorces Joséphine so that he can bring in Austrian princess Marie-Louise as a brood mare. And then decides that it would be a really good idea to invade Russia....
The story is told from the point of view of three characters: the aforesaid Austrian princess, Napoleon's sister Pauline, and her Haitian chamberlain Paul Moreau. And that, for me, is the biggest flaw in the book, and it's a doozy. Let's just run over the plot lines, which are quite juicy in themselves. Marie-Louise is coerced into marriage with Napoleon by the threat of what he could otherwise do to the defeated Hapsburg empire; she leaves her home, her family, her lover, her beloved dog and even her name (Maria Lucia) behind to win over a hostile court and country. Pauline has the hots for her successful brother and a weird obsession with Egypt that leads her to conclude that she and Napoleon should marry and rule Pharaoh-style, a notion probably exacerbated by creeping insanity brought on by venereal disease, a consequence of her promiscuous lifestyle, and her total self-obsession. Paul loves Pauline, and for that reason has left his beloved, war-torn Haiti to follow her to France; he dreams of returning with Pauline to end slavery in the French Empire and resolve his own conflicts as a mulatto intellectual who wins little acceptance in his native land or his adopted one.
The lynchpin of these three lives is Napoleon, of whom we get the standard portrait: the vain, slightly unhinged genius who takes his ambitions one country too far and falls victim to his own legend. Can we see how much is going on in this book? It would take an absolute genius to carry off this tripartite POV structure under the weight of so much history, and Moran isn't that genius. So she falls back on a humdrum chronological structure, switching POV by rote so that no one story really dominates (the title and blurb are, I would imagine, the publisher's attempt to hook the reader by emphasizing the most sympathetic of these three rather unlikeable characters). Worse still, the voices of all three characters are EXACTLY the same, and I kept having to refer to the chapter headings to see who was speaking. This book absolutely cries out a) to be written from a single POV and b) to find some real conflict between the various plot lines instead of just running them more or less side by side. The threads are there, but they aren't woven into something that can carry any weight, especially not the weight of an elephant-sized chunk of French history.
From a technical standpoint the writing's not at all bad: Moran carries off the trendy first-person present tense with ease, and the narrative flows along nicely even if it's lacking in fizz. Her historical choices seem plausible to this non-picky reader; she creates sufficient doubt about Pauline's sanity to leave the question of whether brother and sister actually slept together hanging in the air for further debate. My personal opinion, for what it's worth, is that it was all in Pauline's head; I have never had the impression that Napoleon went that far, and maybe the fascination he held for his contemporaries was precisely his ability to stick like glue to the fine line between genius and insanity. If I'd been able to choose a POV I probably would have gone for Pauline's, as the worthy Marie-Louise and the faithful Paul seemed a little wishy-washy beside her extravagance and she's a perfect candidate for an unreliable narrator.
Verdict: a good try, but it didn't quite come together for me.
View all my reviews