Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review: BECOMING JOSEPHINE by Heather Webb

Today Heather Webb's debut novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE, publishes from Plume. Here is my review of this fascinating fictional portrait.


Desperate for love and adventure, young Rose Tascher visits a voodoo priestess to learn her fortune. "You will become more than a queen," the priestess informs the plantation owner's daughter, who has braved the dangers of the Martiniquan jungle at dusk to learn her fate. More than a queen, indeed--Rose will rise to become France's first empress, Joséphine, wife of Napoléon Bonaparte. But--as the reader of Heather Webb's engaging debut novel BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume, December 2013) learns--empress is not Rose's highest calling. That is to become a woman who creates her own destiny and happiness, who embraces the "joys, pains, deeds and failings" that define her journey to wholeness.

Webb's novel deploys the favored topos of women's fiction--a female protagonist who embarks on a journey of self-discovery and ultimately saves herself (see Amy Sue Nathan's Women's Fiction Defined)--within a historical setting. She recounts thirty years of Rose's life, from her days as a child on Martinique, to her failed marriage to a French aristocrat, her imprisonment during the French Revolution, her struggle to redefine herself and survive the fluid years of the early Republic, through her marriage to and divorce from Napoléon. The events serve to illustrate how Rose grows and changes, how her outlook on life and her vision for the future expands. For Rose does, indeed, change, maturing from a flighty, pleasure-loving ingénue to a generous, devoted mother of both her children and her country, a woman who realizes both her past failings and her own inner strength. The transformation is all the more convincing in that it doesn't occur in a linear, absolute fashion, but in often contradictory, yet completely realistic, fits and starts. It takes the catalyst of divorce for Rose's enlightenment to complete itself, opening the promise of a fulfilling future in which she will define herself in relation to nothing and no one but her own soul.

Webb's Joséphine never forgets her Creole roots. From the opening prophecy of the voodoo priestess, to her lifelong belief in Tarot and fortune-telling, to the sacrifices and supplications she makes to the island fertility goddess, the practices and beliefs of island religion offer Rose a steadying refuge when catastrophic events threaten to overwhelm her. Her beloved servant and half-sister Mimi, daughter of her father and a plantation slave, remains her constant companion, a living link between her formal Parisian present and her vibrant island past. Rose never forgets the scents and sights of her island home; part of the fabric of her being, her Caribbean roots influence everything from her taste in clothing to her love of gardening to her generosity and warm hospitality. Her effusive nature serves to soften Napoléon's abrasiveness and elevates her as an influential stateswoman in her own right--even as her zest for the pleasures of life contributes to her downfall. Webb's emphasis on Joséphine's "otherness" provides the character an intriguing multifacetedness that enchants the reader as thoroughly as it did Napoléon and an entire nation.

Webb writes with a smooth, accessible style that serves its subject well. She provides just enough historical detail to bring the sights and smells and events of a dizzying era to life. She handles the political changes with aplomb, never losing the reader as France travels from kingdom to republic to directorship to empire. More importantly, she never shifts her focus from Rose's inner journey. Just as Rose becomes "more than a queen," BECOMING JOSEPHINE becomes more than a typical historical novel. It sketches a compelling portrait of generous, engaged, resilient woman who "toils for what [is] right and striv[es] to do her part." The historical finds a felicitous blend with the psychological in Heather Webb's triumphant debut.

You can order BECOMING JOSEPHINE from Amazon or find it at your local bookseller. Learn more about Heather Webb and her book at her website.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Interview with Heather Webb, author of BECOMING JOSEPHINE

My dear friend Heather Webb's debut novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume 2013), publishes this December 31. BECOMING JOSEPHINE recounts the story of Rose Tascher, who overcomes an impoverished Créole childhood and a series of misfortunes to become Empress Josephine, consort of Napoleon and, for a time, the most powerful woman in France. BECOMING JOSEPHINE has received a glowing review from Kirkus. I'll post my own review on publication day. Here, Heather answers some questions about her interest in Josephine and the writing of the novel.

1. What drew you to write a novel about Josephine Bonaparte?

The idea for this novel came to me in two parts. I taught a unit about the French Revolution in my high school French classes for several years, which sparked my interest in the time period. Yet despite my teaching, I knew little about Josephine and I “discovered” her later. Ultimately she was a minor player in a sea of France’s most famous and infamous people during the Revolution—at least until Robespierre fell and the Directoire took over the government.

When I began to feel the pull to writing a book, I had a dream about Josephine. Strange, but true. From the very first biography I read, I was hooked. Her vivid childhood home, her adaptable nature and courageous spirit had me enthralled. Her rich life story set to the backdrop of the chaotic Revolution and the opulent Napoleonic Empire cinched the deal.

2. How is your Josephine different from other novelists' Josephines?

What a good question! I've enjoyed all the accounts of Josephine that I've read, but the Josephine who spoke to me most was the survivor, the adaptable, cunning woman who was excellent at reading the emotions and the needs of those around her. I wanted to emphasize how she wasn't just a victim of her time, but a woman who knew how to leverage the crisis of the day to her advantage. Also, I've found other authors have depicted her generous nature and the way Napoleon took advantage of her, OR her highly sexualized nature, and rarely did the authors marry all the facets of her person. I attempted to do that--to layer my Josephine. I believe we're all contradictory in some aspects and I wanted to illustrate that in my characters.

3. Did the real Josephine dabble in Tarot and the dark arts of her native Martinique?

Yes. There are many sources that document her fondness for Tarot cards, how she relied on them heavily (especially during times of strife), but also that she visited soothsayers in Paris as well as her African medicine woman, the quimboiseur in Martinique. I also found a few accounts of Napoleon being very superstitious and a bit of an amateur palm reader himself.

4. Which period of Josephine's life did you find the most difficult to write about?

Her time with Napoleon! I had to condense so much of their history together to keep the book moving.  Also, I didn't want to overwhelm the story with ANOTHER tour out of the country, another parade through France, or the endless number of lovers Napoleon took on. It would have become trite, in my opinion, to go overboard detailing those events. I also found this period difficult because there are hundreds and hundreds of sources documenting every single step of Napoleon's life and very many that did the same for Josephine. I had to cut through all of the detail and decide which of those were the most important facts to bring to life.

5. In your opinion, would Napoleon's career have been very different if he had not met and married Josephine?

Absolutely. While he was a brilliant military strategist, he had a hideous temper and lacked social grace. Also, as his power grew, so did his ego, consequently making him difficult to deal with on any level. Very many statesmen despised him. He turned into quite the tyrant over time, like any power-hungry politician. Josephine smoothed over so many of his tantrums, charmed his ministers and foreign diplomats, as well as placated the returning Royalists after he came into power.

6. Are the letters you feature from Napoleon and Josephine to each other actual letters? What did reading the pair's historical correspondence reveal to you about their characters? 

Yes, they are--all but the final farewell note to Josephine. It was fascinating to see how Napoleon's feelings toward Josephine changed over the course of their relationship. He all but worshiped her when they first married and by the end of their relationship, he loved her as a dear friend. But he also chastised her when she would tell him she missed him during his travels, or when she wept over losing friends or family members. He also chastised her immodest dress, as he called it. You could see how controlling and chauvinist he really was. To Josephine's credit, she ignored him when she wished. For example, he forbid her from wearing English muslin gowns and both Josephine and her daughter Hortense wore them anyway. He wanted to cover her low necklines so she draped a shawl about her shoulders to appease him, but refused to cover her necklines. So yes, he was domineering, but she was cunning and knew how to appease him and still get her way.

7. If you could own one item once owned by Josephine, what would it be and why? 

Oooo, a fun question. I think I'd have to say Malmaison--the home she built outside of Paris. But if I had to choose a smaller, physical item, I'd LOVE to own her Tarot deck.

8. What do you hope readers take away from your book?

The message I would like readers to grasp—this is tricky because a book, film, or piece of art, means something different to each person based on their own emotional lens and life experiences—is that there is hope in beginning anew, not just loss. Also, true contentedness comes with forgiveness and generosity, and the loving relationships you nurture in your life.

9. What is the most important thing you learned about yourself in writing this novel?

That I can do it! I can follow my passion, work hard, persevere (!!), and that dream is possible!


Heather Webb grew up a military brat and naturally became obsessed with travel, culture, and languages. She put her degrees to good use teaching high school French for nearly a decade before turning to full time novel writing and freelance editing. Her debut, BECOMING JOSEPHINE will release December 31, 2013 from Plume/Penguin.

When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills or looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world. She loves to chitchat on Twitter with new reader friends or writers (@msheatherwebb) or via her blog. Stop on by!