The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien
Author: Ruth Hull Chatlien
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / Bonapartes/ Baltimore / Marriage / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Marriage / Motherhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: Amika Press (12/2/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The life of Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon's brother Jerome.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do -- it captures the flavor and era of the novel.
I'm reminded of...: Liza Perrat
First line: Taking the footman's hand, eighty-five-year-old Betsy Bonaparte gingerly alighted from the carriage and readjusted her voluminous skirts.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.
Why did I get this book?: Couldn't pass up a Bonaparte hist fic!
Review: While I'm a fan of Josephine Bonaparte, I actually know very little about the Bonaparte family, so I jumped on the chance to read a novel about her sister-in-law. With the Bonapartes, I anticipated some drama, but I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this fabulous novel.
Baltimore belle Elizabeth 'Betsy' Patterson longs for more than the life as a merchant's wife, and as a child, is told she's destined for royal courts. When Napoleon Bonaparte's dashing younger brother Jerome appears in Baltimore, both are immediately smitten with each other. After a passionate courtship, they marry, and Betsy finds that being embroiled with the Bonapartes comes with a greater cost than she anticipated.
I'm being purposefully vague because I don't want to ruin any of the (historical) twists of the novel; if you, too, are unfamiliar with Betsy Bonaparte, don't google her -- just settle in and start this novel. I probably gasped aloud at least once a chapter -- the events of Betsy's life are shocking and surprising and make for a delicious novel.
Chatlien's writing is easy and reads quickly, although there were a few times where I wished the pacing had been tightened up, particularly early on in the novel during Betsy's childhood. However, once Betsy meets Jerome, the story races, and I found it impossible to put the book down.
While Betsy occasionally frustrated me with her life choices, she's portrayed sympathetically and with affection, and I couldn't help but like her. The numerous secondary characters, including the many famous 18th century American and European figures who crossed paths with Betsy Bonaparte, are evoked neatly and warmly.
The historical details are just wonderful in this book. I've never 'visited' 18th century Baltimore so this was a particular treat; Chatlien manages to evoke era and place in an effortless way, without the dreaded infodump.
There's a detailed bibliography and discussion questions included in this volume, although there was no Historical Note, sadly.
For Francophiles, this is a must read, as well as those who like historical novels about ordinary people coming up against the impossible (in this case, Napoleon Bonaparte's will!). A lovely, fast reading novel of a young American woman coming of age at an exciting time, caught up in a love affair that seems doomed from the start. I'm looking forward to Chatlien's next offering!