Friday, November 30, 2012
In 1809, Napoleon is at the height of his power but desperate for an heir. He divorces his beloved wife Josephine and demands the hand of young Maria Luisa of Austria, scion of the Hapsburg line that has ruled for centuries. The princess has little choice: if she refuses to wed Napoleon, she will subject her homeland to another bloody campaign and further humiliations. Torn from her family and the man she loves, Maria travels to France to bind herself in a marriage that the Pope refuses to recognize. At Napoleon's court, she lives as a stranger, detested by the Emperor's family, subjected to his cruel tongue and savage caprices, and regarded with suspicion by a populace who beheaded her great-aunt, Marie-Antoinette, little more than a decade before. Grit, pride, and love for the son she bears sustain her and earn her Napoleon's grudging respect. Departing on his ill-fated conquest of Russia, the Emperor appoints her regent; as the French army falters and Austria threatens certain defeat, Marie-Louise must determine where her true duty lies.
Moran sets Marie-Louise at the center of a triptych, flanked on one side by Napoleon's beautiful sister Pauline, and on the other by Pauline's Haitian chamberlain, Paul Moreau. Pauline is as corrupt as Marie-Louise is virtuous, as weak as she is strong. Luscious and alluring as an over-ripe fruit, Pauline is rotten at the core, riddled by venereal disease and unhealthy desire for her brother. Obsessed with Egyptian history and art, she yearns to marry Napoleon and rule with him as brother-sister couples did along the Nile. Jealousy towards Marie-Louise consumes her, especially once the second empress becomes pregnant with Napoleon's child. Pauline's willful selfishness leads to the death of one lover and makes life an exquisite torture for devoted and dependable Paul, who has adored her--or at least his dream of her--since the two met as young adults in Haiti.
A man of mixed race, Paul finds himself caught between the white and black cultures of Haiti and flees with Pauline during the slave revolt, traveling with her to France as her chamberlain. An educated idealist who earns Napoleon's trust, Paul debates political philosophy with the Emperor, but can never convince him to abolish slavery on the island colony. Paul's "otherness," his limbo-like existence between two worlds, two Paulines (the ingenue of the Haitian idyll and the depraved European courtesan), allows him to forge a link of sympathy with Marie-Louise. Just as the Empress must decide which of her duties to follow, Paul must choose which of his lives to embrace. But whereas Marie-Louise's decision leads her back to family and the love she left behind, Paul finds himself alone, a new man in a strange land, free to forge his way in a place that, paradoxically, has become more of a home for all its changing.
The themes of duty, love and otherness that link Marie-Louise, Pauline and Paul crystallize in the person of Napoleon. A perpetual outsider, a Corsican outcast, Napoleon imposes his will not only on France but the whole of Europe. Duty forces him to abandon Josephine, yet his unquenchable love for her distorts all his other relationships. A volatile, controlling, often despicable tyrant, Moran's Napoleon nevertheless evokes a measure of sympathy. Ever defensive and uncomfortable in his own skin, always seeking but never finding balance, he lashes out at the very people who might heal him, and like them, continues to chase dreams that remain forever out of reach.
Moran's strong characterizations and nuanced themes overcome some confusing politics and uneven pacing towards the end of the novel. Fans of her books will savor this latest offering, while new readers will be happy to learn that she has four other novels for them to read.