Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Secret Life of Josephine Napoleon's Bird of Paradise by Carolly Erickson

In "The Secret Life of Josephine" Carolly Erickson spins a fanciful tale from the life of Napoleon's empress. Embroidering on facts, and inventing from whole-cloth, she shows us how Rose Tascher, from the lush and lazy tropical island of Martinique, went to Paris and evolved into the sensual, charming enchantress Josephine, marrying first a cold, fastidious cousin to enable him to obtain his inheritance, surviving the French Revolution and escaping the guillotine by a hairs-breadth, becoming a lady of fashion and the mistress of powerful men along the way, before her marriage to power-mad Corsican General Napoleon Bonaparte, who ultimately crowned her Empress of France. Their marriage is a stormy story of both battlefields and bedrooms, adultery and abuse, both physical and verbal, that escalates as Josephine's beauty fades and Napoleon's ambitions swell, until his dynastic pretensions (the need for a male heir born of a royal bride) leads to divorce. The novel ends with a rather implausible climax in which Josephine pursues Napoleon to Russia to make his destruction her personal mission and fulfill a prophecy made in her girlhood by a powerful voodoo sorcerer.

After years of writing biographies, Carolly Erickson has thrown the facts away to scatter on the winds and let fancy and fantasy replace them on the printed page. While entertaining, her novels are definitely not the place to look for facts about the lives of the famous women of history, and generally score poorly with readers who require a larger dose of fact in their historical fiction. Personally, I find them fun, escapist fare, swift, easy reads that help pass the time, and I know not to take them seriously.

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