I received a copy of Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.
About the Book:
Becoming Josephine is about what you’d expect, given the title. It tells the story of Josephine Bonaparte, from her youth on Martinique (when she was known as Rose) to her crowning as empress of France and beyond. The book focuses on the more personal side of Josephine’s story, highlighting events and moments that affected her growth and shaped her character rather than providing a complete history of her life.
I’m a fan of Josephine. I like her. I admire her. She’s courageous, passionate, determined, clever. She crossed an ocean to marry a man she’d never met, bore two children, weathered two marriages and more lovers, got herself through a lot of impossible situations, and lived through a pivotal period in French history. I have yet to read a factual biography of her, but she has fascinated me ever since I first learned of her.
I did not, however, love this book. It left me feeling dissatisfied and a little unhappy with how Josephine was portrayed. Since I finished it a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been stewing over what, exactly, left me so cold.
I think the book’s fatal flaw lies in the fact that it compressed Josephine’s life too dramatically. In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Webb mentions that she intentionally compressed periods of history to trace the arc of Josephine’s development. Fair enough. But the result is that the novel is a compilation of high points, emotional extremes, sudden decisions, and hurried glimpses of major historical events. It makes Josephine’s development seem at once too rushed and too contrived. She comes across as overly dramatic. And hey, maybe that’s how the actual historical Josephine was. But it didn’t work for me in the novel. Until the final pages, I liked Webb’s Josephine about as much as I liked George’s Helen.
I wasn’t won over by Webb’s writing style, either. It struck me as overly passionate most of the time, with an odd blend of old-fashioned and modern conventions. It emphasized the compression effects I’ve already mentioned. I felt like it was forever a barrier between myself and the story. Not that it was actually bad. Just…noticeable. It kept snagging my attention as I read.
The one bright spot, in my opinion, was Webb’s portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte, Josephine’s second husband and the man who changed her name from Rose. He is intense, quirky, enigmatic, inscrutable. I never saw the relationship between Bonaparte and Josephine develop into the great love it was supposed to be, but on his own, Napoleon seemed right to me.
It’s possible I’m just being grumpy. Years ago I read and adored Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. trilogy, which also traces the life of Josephine Bonaparte. Except Gulland gave Josephine three books and set her firmly within her historical context. The heroine still grew immensely. She still weathered the ups and downs, and they still shaped her character. The two authors’ approaches feel vastly different. Suffice it to say that I would recommend Gulland’s version a hundred times over Webb’s.
The Verdict: Mediocre
Am I glad I got the opportunity to read Becoming Josephine? Sure. It wasn’t a bad book. And if nothing else, it made me realize just how wonderful Sandra Gulland’s trilogy really is. It also made me want to revisit that old favorite. But Becoming Josephine won’t be making my list of 2014 favorites.
What book(s) have you read that didn’t treat a historical figure the way you’d hoped or expected?