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The Second Empress

The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon’s Court is a historical fiction novel by Michelle Moran.

Napoleon has decided to divorce his wife Josephine in order to produce an heir. He decides upon the eighteen-year-old Marie-Louise, daughter of the king of Austria.

She has little choice in the matter. To refuse would plunge her country, her beloved family, into war and economic disaster. She does what is honorable as a princess and travels to France to be the second empress of France.

Except for Napoleon’s keen welcome, in which he wants to immediately get started on producing his successor, Marie-Louise finds herself not wanted by many. Napoleon’s sister Pauline is especially frustrated with her brother’s wife – angry that she was not chosen to be his empress instead.

Pauline does not give up easily however, and is determined to see her dream of ruling Egypt like the ancient Pharaoh did. Always there to comfort and support her is Pauline’s Haitian servant Paul – but his sympathy is beginning to run out…

The Second Empress is written from all three viewpoints.

I was excited to read this for two reasons. One, I was absolutely stunned by Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud (which made my Stand-Out Books of 2012!) and therefore enthusiastic about her as an author. Second, I’ve always been a sucker for Napoleon and Josephine and had never learned much about his second wife.

Sadly, The Second Empress did not sit well with me.

I understand that Napoleon Bonaparte was not actually Armand Assante – but I’ve always found his personality fascinating. He was, after all, a charismatic genius. Now, one of the things I love about historical fiction is looking at situations and people from different angles – but the way Moran portrayed Napoleon and Marie-Louise was hard for me to swallow.

Every once in a while there’d be letters from Napoleon to Josephine featured - just brimming with heavily romantic, passionate and dramatic feeling – yet we very rarely got to see him in the novel, and practically never in a positive light. Do I doubt that the man had bad moments – perhaps many? No. But I felt that The Second Empress had an opinion, and couldn’t get past that bias.

Even more so, though, was my surprise at the rather lackluster writing. Madame Tussaud was electrifyingly powerful and dynamic – stuffed with gripping history and engrossing, multi-layered characters. In my opinion, that was really missing here.

Then I had issues with the other characters. Marie-Louise seemed to me to be full of herself and sparse when it came to personality. Pauline is extremely selfish and, to me, unlikable and non-sympathetic. Paul was only moderately interesting to me – and to be honest I didn’t understand his purpose in the story since very little seems to be actually known about him.

Finally, I have read about numerous historical inaccuracies in The Second Empress. I’m not saying that this isn’t normal, for dramatic purposes, etc. It happens in historical fiction. But one was not even mentioned by the author in her historical note and has bothered me incessantly. It is that in the book Marie-Louise is in a romantic relationship with Adam Neipperg before she even leaves for France. According to many reports I’ve read, she didn’t even meet him until much later – and he doesn’t sound like the saint he appears in the novel. There’s also conflicting accounts as to whether Marie-Louise actually came to love or at least care for Napoleon by the end, or if she was even such a great person herself.

Essentially, I was disappointed that characters that have so many sides and so many contradictory, unsure history attached to them were written in such a one-sided fashion.

That’s just me though. You might adore it! Do read it if you’re a fan of the era or the writer – I still always believe in deciding for yourself.

As for me, I’m left dying to re-watch the TV miniseries Napoleon and Josephine from 1987 – which, even if not fully accurate, at least gives these characters the benefit of the doubt and makes them feel real. If you haven’t seen it – do!

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