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Michelle Moran – The Second Empress

October 8, 2012

LibraryThing Early Reviewers110. The Second Empress by Michelle Moran (2012)

Length: 314 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 23 September 2012
Finished: 28 September 2012

Where did it come from? The LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
Why do I have it? I’m a big fan of Moran’s books.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 August 2012.

Being conquerer
of Europe doesn’t mean you’re
a people person.

Summary: When she is just eighteen, Princess Marie-Louise of Austria is faced with a terrible choice: leave home and marry the French Emperor Napoleon, who has set aside his first wife Josephine and is eager for the royal legitimacy – and potential heirs – offered by a Hapsburg princess; or refuse, and condemn her country to war and conquest. Like her great-aunt Marie Antoinette, Marie-Louise agrees to marry the ruler of France, but what she finds is not at all what she expected. She had heard rumors of Napoleon’s ambition, but she had never expected the degree of selfishness and casual cruelty she finds. The rest of the French court is not much better, and Marie-Louise has a dangerous rival: Napoleon’s sister Pauline, who is just as vain and ambitious as her brother, and dreams of anointing Napoleon a modern-day Pharaoh, and of ruling by his side.

Review: Michelle Moran has done it again. She’s so good at finding a piece of history I know little-to-nothing about, and bringing it to life in a way that is immediate and relatable. While I’ve read a fair bit of historical fiction regarding the Napoleonic wars, all (or almost all?) of it has been from the British perspective, and thus it’s rare that I’ve encountered Napoleon “in person”, as it were. I’ve certainly never read anything about his family, and I don’t know that I entirely realized that he’d married anyone other than Josephine… certainly not a relative of Marie Antoinette! But once again, Moran has clearly done her historical research, and told a story that makes the time period and the characters feel memorable and real… my favorite way to learn history!

The book is told from three rotating points-of-view: Marie-Louise, Pauline, and Pauline’s Haitian manservant Paul. Marie-Louise’s sections reminded me (perhaps unsurprisingly) very strongly of Juliet Grey’s Becoming Marie Antoinette, although Moran does her best to keep her characters anchored in time and in their proper historical context. Pauline’s sections were interesting at first, but got to feeling a little repetitive by the end, since Pauline’s scheming doesn’t ever amount to much other than an escalating cycle of scandalous behavior, crazed ambition, and selfishness. I thought Paul provided the most unique perspective on the time (especially since my sum total of knowledge on the Haitian revolution comes from the musical “Once on This Island”), and frequently found myself wishing for more of his chapters.

If I could change one thing about this book, though, it would have been to amp up the tension a bit. It’s an exciting period of history, and Moran does a good job in portraying that on the broad scale, but the interpersonal drama doesn’t always hit the mark. For example, we’re clearly meant to be rooting for Marie-Louise, and I was, but I also didn’t always get emotionally involved in her plight, because I never really believed that Pauline posed a threat to her marriage. Similarly, the end of Napoleon’s reign is covered relatively quickly, with the text skimming over large parts of time, and I feel like some more dramatic potential could have been wrung from both the political and the interpersonal situations of the time.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this read quite a bit. Moran’s writing is as smooth and clean as ever, and her talent for depicting fascinating bits of history just as strong as in her previous books. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Recommended for fans of historical fiction, particularly those who are interested in the French Revolution and Napoleon’s reign, obviously, but also those who in general prefer to focus on the personal rather than the political side of history.

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First Line: Cairo, July 25, 1798. You will see in the newspapers the result of our battles and the conquest of Egypt, where we found resistance enough to add a leaf to the laurels of this army.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 19: “With every golden crown and faience ushabti discovered in Cairo, she will be remembered for eternity.” – funerary figurines used in Ancient Egypt, intended to act as substitutes for the deceased, should he/she be called upon to do manual labor in the afterlife.
  • p. 205: “But as my lady-in-waiting arranges my curls, and I wait for Hortense to arrive with my parure, I can’t stop thinking about Marie-Antoinette.” – a set of matched jewelry or other ornaments.
  • p. 271: “Outside, a hired berline is waiting.” – a four-wheeled closed carriage having an open, hooded seat behind.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2012 10:45 am

    I don’t read much historical fiction but have been told I need to try Moran’s work to really understand why people love it so. Hopefully I’ll get to it one of these days.

    • October 8, 2012 11:01 am

      Kathy – I think I’d recommend starting with Madame Tussaud, but Moran’s work is reliably engaging and accessible, so you really can’t go wrong whichever you pick.

  2. October 8, 2012 10:47 am

    I loved Madam Tussaud. So glad to hear this one is good to! Can’t wait!

    • October 8, 2012 11:02 am

      Annette – I didn’t love this one as much as I loved Madame Tussaud, but it’s definitely in the same vein.

  3. October 8, 2012 10:58 am

    I’m going to need to get my hands on a copy of this. Moran’s a favorite and I’m so glad there’s a new book out. Glad to hear it’s a good read too.

    • October 8, 2012 11:03 am

      Amy – Indeed! Moran’s become one of the authors whose new books I will automatically pick up, regardless of subject.

  4. October 9, 2012 1:20 am

    Wow! I hadn’t heard of this book before, but I’m going to have to read it. Moran is a new author to me–reading the summary makes me wonder where I’ve been. I love historical fiction–it really can do great things with connecting us to the dry facts!

    • October 9, 2012 10:22 am

      Rachel – Definitely check out Moran’s books, they’re great! This is her newest, so it’s maybe not surprising you haven’t heard of it, but she’s also got two set in ancient Egypt, one set in Octavian’s Rome, and one during the French Revolution.

  5. October 10, 2012 10:13 pm

    I don’t think I knew Napoleon had a second wife either. But I’m like you–I’ve read all (or nearly all) my Napoleonic era fiction from the British perspective. Maybe it goes with the language…

    • October 11, 2012 12:12 pm

      Cheryl – I’m sure it does go with the language… I wonder how many historical fiction books are published in French and never translated, and what their perspective on the era is?

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