(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)
Young Josephine Bonaparte shines at the center of a new, sweeping, romantic work of historical fiction by Sandra Gulland: detailed and exhaustively researched, compelling and powerful, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. is the first in a trilogy of fictional novels tracing the actual rise of a young European noblewoman who would one day stand next to Napoleon. From the heartbreak of lost loves to the horror of revolution to the hope of new days, it’s an intimate epic any romance lover will love.
Like many people, I never really thought much about Josephine, the immoral wife of Napoleon Bonaparte—at least until I read Sandra Gulland’s take on her. Learning her story from her extremely humble beginnings, to her unhappy marriage to Alexandre Beauharnais and the fact that she just barely survived Robespierre’s Reign of Terror made me really connect with her. She was in business when it was unseemly for women to do so. She divorced her husband—a true rarity of the time! And she also played a huge role in the politics of the time, again despite being a woman. Reading about her early years up to her marriage to Bonaparte really gives you the feeling she was judged harshly by history like many strong women.
I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re in for fast-paced historical fiction, but for those of us that like slowly building tension and intricately plotted narratives combined with vivid imagery it’s a dream come true. It’s told in diary form from Josephine’s perspective, but it never gets annoying like other books told in the same format. From that perspective, we get to see her innermost thoughts as she struggles to deal with life in Paris, far away from her homeland of Martinico. In a loveless marriage with two children she has to look out for we really get to see so many different aspects of her character. We see her savvy political side, her motherly instinct to protect her children and her iron lady side as she insists on doing what’s best for her children and those she loves.
French history isn’t exactly my strong point, especially around the time of the French Revolution, but with a bibliography and a note at the end on historical accuracy, you get the feeling that Sandra Gulland has done her research. As with Mistress of the Sun, even if everything isn’t 100% accurate the main events are and the minor details feel accurate. This is important in historical fiction and I honestly felt like I was transported back in time to Josephine’s terrifying, exciting, constantly changing world. Josephine is most definitely a memorable character and is now one of my favourite historical figures.
I give this book 5/5 stars.