Michelle Moran has a gift for making history come alive. She makes people who lived over one hundred years ago seem as though they are living and breathing now. Her latest book The Second Empress: A Novel Of Napoleon’s Court takes on the period of time when Marie-Louise, a Hapsburg princess became the empress of France. While The Second Empress is not quite on par with Moran’s Madame Tussaud, it is still a compelling read about an interesting era of French history.
Napoleon Bonaparte is a bit of a warmonger (understatement) and has unchecked power in France. When it comes out that Josephine, his wife, has been cheating on him, he must divorce her to avoid embarrassment. On the search for a new wife, it comes to Napoleon’s attention that Marie-Louise, daughter of the king of Austria, is single. And so, to avoid making war with Napoleon, despite being unable to stand Napoleon, the king of Austria sends Marie-Louise away. And so, The Second Empress is about Marie-Louise’s time in France, interspersed with the narrative of Napoleon’s sister Pauline and Pauline’s chamberlin, Paul.
Marie-Louisa had the most compelling voice of the three point of view characters. She’s a strong lady who gives up everything she’s ever known in order to save her father’s kingdom. Basically, if she did not marry Napoleon, he would have started a war. I like that she tries to make the best of a bad situation. Obviously, Napoleon is still carrying a torch for Josephine. Further, there is no love between Marie-Louisa and Napoleon. Yet, Marie-Louisa does what she must, and as I reader I could not help but root for The Second Empress and hope that everything would turn out alright in the end for Marie-Louisa. I also have to admit that I had to make myself not look up spoilers on wikipedia, because I was so invested in Marie-Louisa. She just comes across as very level-headed and thoughtful, and I tend to really like that in a character.
Pauline, Napoleon’s sister is also interesting too. She provides such a contrast to Marie-Louisa. Where Marie-Louisa is prim and proper and selfless, Pauline acts out of impropriety and selfishness. She is very fixated on Egypt and the whole brother-sister ruling together thing. She has a lot of lust for her brother, Napoleon, which is actually skin crawling. Yet, I think I liked reading about Pauline because she’s so wild. I liked that she defied convention, even though I did not always agree with what she did.
Now, as for the last point of view character, Paul, I did not think he was as compelling as Pauline and Marie-Louisa. Paul basically serves to highlight the struggles in Haiti against French imperialism. Honestly, while Paul did have has moments that intrigued me, I felt like he was really there to teach a history lesson. He felt a bit superfluous to the plot. Personally, I would have rather that The Second Empress focus specifically on Marie-Louisa and Pauline, as Paul’s chapters felt like a disconnect. It just seemed jarring compared with the rest of the book.
I did like that Michelle Moran wove in some real life romance in The Second Empress. Before coming to France, Marie-Louisa has an affair with an Austrian Count. Their relationship is warm and loving. It did make her marriage to Napoleon that much more devastating. Yet, I am glad it was included, because there’s those threads of longing throughout the book. Honestly, I liked that the relationship, forbidden as it may be, gave me something to hope for as a reader. I kept hoping Marie would get her count in the end.
Moran is a competent writer and she truly does make history fascinating. However, I did not find The Second Empress to be nearly as compelling as Madame Tussaud. I suppose with this book, I never really felt an underlying current of danger or excitement as I did with Madame Tussaud. Don’t get me wrong, the plot was intriguing, but I just never really felt all that anxious for Marie-Louisa, Pauline or Paul. In all, The Second Empress is not quite as exciting. It also took me at least 50 pages to really get hooked.
If you are a fan of historical fiction, by all means read The Second Empress by Michelle Moran. It’s not her best work, yet it makes history accessible. At least one of the point of view characters are very compelling. The setting of Napoleon era France is engaging. I’ve read better though and could not help but think that the entire time I read spent reading this book, unfortunately.
Disclosure: Received for review via Amazon Vine
Other reviews of The Second Empress by Michelle Moran:
Books by Michelle Moran: