If Princess Maria Lucia of Austria doesn’t marry Napoleon Bonaparte, he’ll topple her father from his throne and ruin her family’s future. It’s not even a choice, in her mind, and so she leaves everything she loves behind to become the next Empress of France, in a journey startlingly reminiscent of Marie Antoinette, the beheaded Austrian queen of France. In Napoleon’s court, she meets his sister, Pauline, whose mood swings and affairs are legendary, and her chamberlain Paul, a Haitian who longs to return to his native land but can’t stop loving Pauline. Together they endure one of France’s most turbulent periods.
Michelle Moran has penned some of my favorite historical novels and I love the way she gives a focus to women in history who haven’t really been spotlighted in her last three. Marie-Louise has always existed in the shadow of Napoleon’s great love story with Josephine, his first wife and empress, and it’s lovely that Moran chose to give her a focus with this book. Napoleon’s sister Pauline is better known, but still not usually in the limelight, and Paul is a completely different focus altogether.
Unfortunately, while this premise was good, I actually preferred Marie-Louise to both Paul and Pauline. I felt much more for her as she left her home and her actual lover to marry this man that extorted money from her country and threatened her father. I should have felt more for both Paul and Pauline, but the former didn’t really appeal to me and the latter just seemed out of touch with reality. I kept hoping to get back to Marie-Louise’s story and I rushed through the other chapters so that I could spend more time with her. I can understand how Pauline in particular might appeal to another reader because she really is a character, and I know a lot of the elements here were taken from fact, but I couldn’t really feel for her at all.
Another reason I didn’t really love this one as much as some of Moran’s other books was because I found out that Marie-Louise only met Adam, the lover she leaves in the book when she has to go marry Napoleon, much later on when she’s already a married woman. I felt disappointed by this; it’s such a huge part of the plot in the beginning, when we discover Marie-Louise isn’t an innocent and that everyone knows she loves someone else, that I felt let down to discover it wasn’t really close to the truth. I would have preferred a narrative constructed more around the historical reality, and I think her departure already had the potential to be quite emotional. It isn’t a minor detail, either, like moving a date around, and it just made me feel that the way the historical gaps had been filled in wasn’t believable any more. It was a real shame and I will confess that it left me disappointed. Am I being unfair here? Maybe a little – but I always prefer the gaps in the historical record to be filled in, and an emotional reality imagined, and discovering that the emotional reality simply couldn’t have happened does have an impact on my feelings about the book.
While I still enjoyed actually reading The Second Empress, I’m afraid that I’d recommend one of Moran’s other books first, and to accept that this read might land much more on the fiction side of historical fiction.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.