Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Making of a French Empress

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb


It took 30 years for Marie Jos├Ęphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie to go from being a young Creole girl from Martinique, to being Rose de Beauharnais and finally becoming Josephine Bonaparte and the first Empress of the French Empire, before she was divorced from Napoleon. Her life and experiences were well documented by historians. In her debut historical novel, "Becoming Josephine," Heather Webb looks beyond the facts to find what made this girl into such a legendary woman.

It is very appropriate that Webb chose to include the quote "one is not born a woman; one becomes one" (Simone de Beauvoir) before she embarks on this amazing tale. In fact, Webb has embodied this throughout her story by putting the development of the woman behind the history at its very core. What's more, she does this with an elegance of prose that fits perfectly with both the time and the personality of her main character. From the very first paragraphs we are both swept up into the era and welcomed into her very heart, mind and soul.

But this isn't the only thing that makes "Becoming Josephine" such a compelling read. Webb has done an incredibly wonderful job with the pace of this book. It starts out at a comfortable canter just to get us going, and then quickly builds to a full-blown gallop. As a slow reader, I found myself just devouring page after page, and finishing it in record time (only five days). This is not simply unusual for me in general; it is also something that doesn't happen in particular when reading historical fiction. I've found that often this genre can get overly bogged down by the historical side of things. This happens more if the factual information about the person is extensively available. However, in this instance, all of the facts seemed to meld beautifully into the fictional/personal side of Josephine, making the reader feel like they were actually reading her diaries or standing beside her, listening in on her thoughts. In short, Webb made Josephine into a truly three dimensional character.

After all that praise, it would be very difficult to come up with much criticism of this book. If there is anything I'm not completely sure of it is the way it started off and the very ending. Webb starts the book with a short vignette that takes place near the end of Josephine's life. From there, Webb flashes back to begin telling the story from Josephine's youth, just before he leaves Martinique for Paris. We then go completely chronologically through her life, and finish with her leaving the Palace after her divorce from Napoleon. This all works very nicely, and I'm glad it wasn't a collection of flashbacks.

However, after I finished the book, I went back to read the prologue again. It was then that I realized that I didn't understand it, and had to look up what happened in 1814 to Napoleon in order to figure out (or guess at) what she was referring to. While I liked the idea of this quick glimpse into the end of Josephine's life before we started to read about her beginnings, I wish I understood it better. I also found that the very end of the book - meaning what happened after her being crowned empress - didn't seem to fit with the rest of the narration. I realize that this might sound contradictory, but for me this part both dragged and felt slightly rushed, which slightly lessened the impact of the story. My only suggestion would have been to end with the coronation and then have a jump to 1814 again, with some explanation of the opening, and maybe her death.

With that aside, I still think that Webb has done a stellar job with this novel and subject matter. She's taken on a huge task that must have included enormous amounts of research. Even so, she was able to make it feel like it just flowed from her pen as if she had lived through it all herself. The prose absolutely sparkles as we are swept along by this fascinating story. This is a masterful debut novel, and I cannot give Heather Webb's "Becoming Josephine" less than four and a half stars out of five, and heartily recommend it.


"Becoming Josephine" by Heather Webb published by Plume Press (Penguin Group) released December 31, 2013 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UKBarnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader's copy of this book via NetGalley.