Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb
Author: Heather Webb
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / France / Historical Figures Fictionalized / French Revolution / Napoleon Bonaparte / Political Intrigue)
Publisher/Publication Date: Plume Books (12/31/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I raced through it!
One-sentence summary: The tumultuous, troublesome, sparkling, and charmed life of Josephine Bonaparte.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's rather eye-catching for a historical novel (no headless woman!).
I'm reminded of...: Lynn Cullen, Karen Harper
First line: The missive arrived in the night.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you're a Francophile.
Why did I get this book?: I adore Josephine and I've been eager for this book since meeting Webb at the Historical Novel Society conference last June.
Review: One of my all-time favorite trilogies is Sandra Gulland's series about Josephine, which turned me into a full-blown Josephine fangirl. I must confess I started this novel nervously, afraid it wouldn't satisfy.
My anxieties were for naught.
Webb's Josephine is a fully realized heroine, steely and soft in equal part, a character who grows from a girl to a woman in the course of the novel, and it was a delight being with her. As with my favorite heroines, I miss her now that I'm finished with the novel!
Written in first person, the novel spans 1779, when Josephine -- then Rose Tascher -- is a teenager in Martinique to 1814, the year of her death. Brisk and plotty, the story races through the tumultuous events of Josephine's life without ignoring our heroine's development. From the first page, Josephine's charming and winsome personality shines through, making me fall as easily in love with her as her many admirers and friends. (I'm a stickler about that: if we're told a character has X trait, I want to see it demonstrated, and Webb more than once revealed a woman of grace, resolve, and passion.)
For those unfamiliar with Josephine's life outside of her role as Napoleon's wife, Webb's novel is a marvelous introduction. The events of her life -- her marriage to a handsome rake, her imprisonment during the French Revolution, her life as an arms dealer -- are brought to life with the kind of effortless historical detail that makes me love this genre. (As a tarot aficionado, I was delighted by the competent and respectful inclusion of the occult elements of Martinique in Josephine's story; it felt natural to the character and the era.)
Near the end of the novel, Webb's Josephine says, "Who I had become, where I longed to be, eluded me." (p298). It was a line that hit me emotionally; I felt very strongly that I knew who she had become, and yet, I felt acutely her own sense of being unmoored.
My only complaint is that I wished the novel was longer; at 300 pages, it reads quickly, and more than once I wished the story could have lingered or delved more deeply into Josephine's life. But then again, I'm rapacious when it comes to Josephine.
A wonderful debut, this novel is a marvelous introduction to Josephine and a welcome reunion for those who know her already. Francophiles and fans of royalty fic will want this book as well as anyone who likes a rags-to-riches story. If you want mood and an unforgettable heroine, grab this and book yourself a weekend to read -- you want want to put it down.
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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Becoming Josephine to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers only, ends 1/31.