Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte

Author: Kate Williams
Genre: Biography
Type: Hardcover, Advanced Reading Copy (ARC)
Source: Random House of Canada
Pages: 384
Publisher: Random House of Canada
First Published: November 4, 2014
First Lines: "December 1, 1804.  It was the most important night of Josephine's life."

Book Description from GoodReads:  This is the incredible rise and unbelievable fall of a woman whose energy and ambition is often overshadowed by Napoleon's military might. In this triumphant biography, Kate Williams tells Josephine's searing story, of sexual obsession, politics and surviving as a woman in a man's world.

Abandoned in Paris by her aristocratic husband, Josephine's future did not look promising. But while her friends and contemporaries were sent to the guillotine during the Terror that followed the Revolution, she survived prison and emerged as the doyenne of a wildly debauched party scene, surprising everybody when she encouraged the advances of a short, marginalized Corsican soldier, six years her junior.

Josephine, the fabulous hostess and skilled diplomat, was the perfect consort to the ambitious but obnoxious Napoleon. With her by his side, he became the greatest man in Europe, the Supreme Emperor; and she amassed a jewelry box with more diamonds than Marie Antoinette's. But as his fame grew, Napoleon became increasingly obsessed with his need for an heir and irritated with Josephine's extravagant spending. The woman who had enchanted France became desperate and jealous. Until, a divorcee aged forty-seven, she was forced to watch from the sidelines as Napoleon and his young bride produced a child.

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to Random House Canada for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review:  This was an extremely well researched, comprehensive biography that acknowledges that Josephine was much more than just the wife of an infamous historical figure.

The reader gets a very detailed look into the personality of Josephine.  She was a very resourceful, conniving and smart woman as she rose from her youth in Martinique to the immense wealth and power that she accrued with Napoleon and her powerful friends.  If it weren't for the fact that I know that Josephine was a real historical figure I would have thought there was no way that a woman could have survived what Josephine survived nor amass the power that she had over her very powerful husband.

While I had a limited knowledge of Josephine going into this book, Ambition and Desire went much more in-depth and even included many quotes from real letters between Napoleon and others.  I also enjoyed learning a few new things about the character and the era.  For example, the effects on the people who survived The Terror as well as the knowledge that Josephine was such a talented botanist and that she loved to collect rare animals and brought them to her home, Malmaison.  It's those facts that I tend to take away from a biography more than the names of the vast array of secondary characters.  And there were a lot of secondary characters which I unfortunately had a hard time keeping straight.

One of the main focuses on the book was, of course, Josephine's very unique marriage to Napoleon.  There is no arguing that they had a very deep connection to each other even though their relationship was often volatile.  I was surprised at the depth of Napoleon's feelings for his wife and the power Josephine regularly had over him.  Napoleon and Josephine went into the marriage for different reasons (he for someone to love him for who he was, she to invest in her future) but the result for both of them was an inordinate amount of power and a deep fondness for each other.

While the information provided was interesting I did find the book dry in several parts due to the amounts of detail provided.  Surprisingly, even though there was a lot of detail I didn't feel a real connection to Josephine and would have loved to have gotten more of a look into her emotions and how certain issues affected her.  She seemed very cold whereas Napoleon surprised me with the depth of feelings in the letters that he regularly wrote his wife.

Going into this book I admittedly had a limited knowledge about Josephine when I read one book on her several years ago.  This new book by Kate Williams, while heavy in historical detail, does provide a very extensive description of a very famous woman and wife of a truly notorious man.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

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