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.

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