A Swashbuckling Romantic's reviews of the literary, the not-so-literary, the great fun, and the truly awful.MONDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2010
Desiree - Annemarie Selinko
*** 1/2 - I feel like I learned a ton that I never knew about the French Revolution and Napoleon's reign. Desiree was a truly fascinating portrait, though I got a bit bogged down trying to work out who everyone was in this large cast of characters.
FTC Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Desiree from the publisher.
When it comes to Napoleon Bonaparte's love life, his tempestuous relationship with Josephine is almost always at the forefront. But did you know that before Napoleon met and fell in love with Josephine, he was engaged? Desiree Clary started out life as a silk merchant's daughter, but despite all of their differences, her life remained entertwined with Napoleon's - she was with him at his coronation and she was with him at his final abdication following Waterloo.
And Desiree is fascinating in her own right as well. She has the generous nature and (perhaps more importantly) the business sense to protect her family during the political vagaries surrounding Napoleon's rise and fall from power. A uniquely powerful woman who, at least in the pages of this fictitious diary, remains ever approachable and relatable.
One of the aspects of this novel that struck me the most is how the writing voice changes. At the beginning of the novel, Desiree sounds very young. She sees things remarkably clearly - not for her the imposed complications of society's strictures. She simply wants to get things done. Headstrong and emotional, it is easy to see how she falls utterly for the brilliant charismatic young general despite his almost stand-offish aloofness. But as Desiree grows beyond her heartache, the writing style subtly matures along with her. It was gradually done and not overtly noticeable as I was reading until I had put the book down for a bit and returned to it.
As much as I enjoyed that aspect of the diary narration, I did think the format had its limitations. When the narrative would pick up again (to omit years of 'nothing' happening), the explanations at the beginning of each section about why it had been so long since she wrote in her diary weren't particularly interesting or convincing. I would have preferred it if there had been some sort of editorial note about the intervening years having been omitted or something similar. That said, it may be a bit unfair of me - after all, how many times have I started a section with just such a recap when I've not written in a journal for a while...
I learned a great deal about Napoleon as well as about the Swedish royal family from this novel. I had never heard much at all about Sweden in the conflict, and I was utterly fascinated by the revelation that a French citizen was called upon to succeed as the Swedish heir to the throne. And I certainly sympathized with Desiree and the conflicting loyalties and expectations that she faces. What a very full life she led! But however interesting her life was, I did find that the novel was slow in parts - sometimes it seemed the character's limitations got in the way of the story. Desiree was not terribly interested in politics for much of the novel, and especially towards the end when political intrigue and strategy drive the story forward, it can be frustrating not to be shown what is going on because of Desiree's limited focus.
I found the balance between the human elements of love, generosity and jealousy and the more political historical side a bit off at times, but nonetheless, I enjoyed Selinko's story about Napoleon's first love a great deal. It's certainly something very different from the usual historical fare.
Interested in other opinions?