This magnificent historical novel delves into the relationship between Napoleon and his first wife Josephine, from her point of view. What emerges is quite different from the prevailing tempestuous love story we currently know. Rather than being merely the beautiful consort of the Emperor, Stephanie Parkyn has drawn us a picture of a woman with her own passions, including the garden Josephine developed at her country house, Malmaison.
The history of post-Revolution France is lightly described through the lives of the characters and is easy to follow. Josephine is the main character, but the story also follows two men from Parkyn’s first novel Into The World; the gardener Felix Lahaie and the botanist Jacques Labillardiere. They have returned from exploring the wonders of Australia and Java with new specimens and seeds, and their paths cross with Josephine as she seeks to fill her garden with their novel plants.
This is also the story of motherhood. Josephine is under pressure to provide Napoleon with an heir. Two other women are also focused on what it means to be a mother in this era of uncertainty, where childbirth could be so dangerous, babies died frequently, and a woman’s status was often little more than slave to her husband.
The book is worth buying simply for the cover, which features some of the exotic plants Josephine collected. The writing is so good that it draws you along through the story, so the thickness of the book need not be a concern. And while some of the characters overlap with the first novel, it is perfect as a stand-alone book.
Some of Parkyn’s extensive research provides surprising scenes for the modern reader. For example, the debauchery that occurred after the terror of the guillotine was released doesn’t fit with our view of the propriety of that era. Love affairs, liaisons and divorces feature more prominently that would be supposed.
Best of all, these characters feel like real people, with their flaws and anxieties. Parkyn has done a wonderful job of letting us inside their heads. What more could you want from a novel?
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Josie Laird is the author of All About Kate, a novel about body image, and a member of the Franklin Writers Group. The group meets weekly on Tuesdays, 12:45 during term time. Contact Barbara 027 5606 777