In her latest historical novel, The Second Empress, Michelle Moran brings to life the often manic Napoleon and his last few years in power.
When Napoleon fathers a child with his mistress, and thus discovers that he’s not infertile after all, he is determined to divorce his beloved Josephine – who is no longer able to have children – and produce an heir with a new wife. Napoleon’s self-centered and highly ambitious sister, Pauline, believes that Napoleon’s destiny is to rule from Egypt as a modern Pharaoh, with her by his side. Much to her distaste, Napoleon, always conscious of his humble beginnings, chooses to align himself with royalty and selects the Hapsburg Princess Maria Louisa, daughter of the King of Austria, as his bride.
In order to save her father’s kingdom from ruin at Napoleon’s hands, eighteen year old Maria Louisa agrees to sacrifice her own happiness and marry Napoleon. She leaves behind everything she has ever known, including a romantic interest and her name – she is renamed Marie Louise when she arrives in France.
Despite the opulence of the French court, Marie Louise is thrust into a hornet’s nest, surrounded by Napoleon’s siblings and courtiers who all have their own agendas. Pauline in particular is as determined as ever to rule alongside Napoleon in a brother-sister marriage practiced by ancient Egyptians, and schemes to convince him to leave Marie Louise once she bears an heir. Ironically, Marie Louise finds support from unlikely sources. Pauline’s Haitian servant, Paul, is fiercely loyal and in love with his mistress, but sympathizes with the young Empress. And Napoleon’s step-daughter – Josephine’s daughter – becomes an unexpected friend and ally to Marie Louise.
Marie Louise does give birth to a healthy son but amidst the joy, it becomes hard to ignore the rumblings of trouble in Napoleon’s Empire. Ignoring public opinion, Napoleon once again pushes his troops into war – this time with Russia – losing more than half his men to bloodshed, cold and disease, and returning home in a crushing defeat. Unable to stand by idly any longer, other nations declare war on Napoleon; when Marie Louise’s father joins the fight, she must decide where her allegiances lie and whether to do her duty in France, or follow her heart and return to Austria.
Once again, Michelle Moran does a fabulous job of transporting readers through time and letting them experience the fascinating and volatile world of Napoleon’s Empire. I was not too familiar with this time period prior to reading The Second Empress, but looked up the various historical figures and understand the book to be pretty accurate. It is based on primary resources from the time and the chapters are interspersed with letters – Moran does mention that a few letters were made up in the prologue – between Napoleon and Josephine.
I was hooked on the intrigue, the pomp and circumstance of The Second Empress from page one and actually wish that it were a longer novel, but cannot say that it is my favorite work of Moran’s. My mixed feelings about the book have nothing to do with her writing style or her ability to tell a story – which are both great – but with my lack of comfort with the relationship between Napoleon and his sister Pauline. The siblings were a little too close, their relationship often bordering on incestuous, and Pauline’s obsessions with her own brother knew no limits. From reading about their relationship in other sources I understand Moran’s portrayal to be warranted, but it did not stop me from cringing at their overt displays of affection.
Overall, I found The Second Empress to be well researched and highly readable, and cannot wait to see what subject Moran will lend her talents to next.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Crown. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.