I received early access to this book (scheduled for publication Feb 11, 2020) in exchange for writing an impartial review. I have read nearly all of Allison Pataki’s books and am a huge fan. This one however let me down. It’s not bad — just not up to the standard I’ve come to expect from this author. Gave it 3 stars on Goodreads but 3.5 is probably more accurate.
What you have here is a truly fascinating character in Desiree Clary, a little known historical figure who survived France’s Reign of Terror, was briefly engaged to Napoleon Bonaparte, became an attendant to Empress Josephine, and wound up as Queen of Sweden. What Pataki tries to do is flesh out this woman’s remarkable life.
But while I agree that Desiree’s life and this historical period are captivating, the narrative didn’t quite hang together as it might have. Certainly there’s plenty of drama to keep you turning the pages. And it certainly begins well enough.
Desiree is a child at the start of the book, telling about her experiences of fear and hunger following the French Revolution. Chance brings her into the orbit of Bonaparte, a young, talented, and ambitious soldier with big dreams. He’s unlike anyone else and they become engaged. However, once Femme Fatale Josephine enters the picture, the book seems to shift from Desiree’s first-person viewpoint to that of Desiree as more of an observer, focusing on the story of Bonaparte and Josephine.
Theirs is certainly an interesting story. But for me, it’s much more interesting to read historical fiction directly from a participant. Less so when the story is told solely through one character’s observations of others. It’s as though we are suddenly one step removed from the action, with no opportunity for the kind of first hand information that, for example, you can “witness” when a married couple is speaking privately. And while Desiree is busy telling us about the Emperor and his wife, her own life gets much less attention, mostly sidelined.
Later, when Bonaparte begins to lose power, we again pick up Desiree’s own more direct story. But shortly thereafter, the narrative starts to skip big chunks of time as we suddenly fly from milestone to milestone in Desiree’s later life. For example, one chapter tells the story of her son’s marriage. The next picks up decades later when it’s time for her husband to die. Then, next section, it’s 16 years later still and Desiree is near death herself.
Since the story had been, up to this point, following events quite closely and sequentially, It suddenly felt to me like the narrative had segments dropped. Almost as though once Napoleon and Josephine disappeared, it was time to quickly close Desiree’s story. As though her story didn’t have sufficient merit of its own, once she was no longer in Napoleon’s orbit.
If you have an interest in Napoleonic history, you’ll want to read this one. He doesn’t come off as much of a hero. In fact he’s not very likable at all. Nor is Josephine. I just didn’t feel the book did justice to Desiree’s story. And that’s what Pataki said (in the Afterword) that she was trying to do.
You may be interested in my reviews of other Allison Pataki novels:
Where the Light Falls (with Owen Pataki)