January Book of the Month: Becoming Josephine

Title:  Becoming Josephine

Author:  Heather Webb

Publisher:  Penguin/Plume

Pub Date:  December 31, 2013

From the back cover:  Rose sails from Martinique to Paris to trade her plantation ways and Creole black magic culture for love and adventure. But her haughty Parisian husband dashes her hopes when he abandons her amid the tumult of the French Revolution. Through her savoir faire, Rose secures her footing in high society, reveling in handsome men and glitzy balls—until the heads of her friends begin to roll. After narrowly escaping death in the blood-drenched cells of Les Carmes prison, she reinvents herself as Josephine, a socialite of status and power. Yet her youth is fading, and Josephine must choose between a precarious independence and the unwelcome love of an awkward suitor. Little does she know, he would become the most powerful man of his century—Napoleon Bonaparte. BECOMING JOSEPHINE is a novel of one woman’s journey to find eternal love and stability, and ultimately to find herself .

About the author:  Heather Webb is a former French teacher, a blogger, and a member of the Historical Novel Society. She lives with her family in Connecticut.

My thoughts:  Long time readers of the blog know that during it's first year of existence, I did a week long series about some of the women in Napoleon's life: his sister Pauline, his mistress Marie Walewska, and his sister-in-law Betsy Patterson Bonaparte.  I deliberately stayed away from writing about Josephine, because frankly I didn't find her as interesting. After reading Heather Webb's fascinating new novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE, I find that I've reversed my previous opinion of Napoleon's first wife.

This won't be my usual in-depth review, partly because Heather and I are represented by the same agency, and I don't want anyone to think that I'm biased because of it. I found it hard to believe when I picked up the novel, that this was Heather's first book. It reads like her fifth or tenth book, her prose is that polished. From the beginning, I was captivated by her descriptions of colonial Martinique and Josephine's family or I should say Rose because that was the name she was known by until Napoleon began calling her by her middle name.

Webb captures the complex personality of Josephine, innocent, naïve, shrewd, passionate, spoiled, impetuous with deft brush strokes. It's the perfect book for anyone looking for an antidote for the plethora of Tudor novels that have glutted the market.  It made me long for more authors to write books set during and after the French Revolution. By the end of the novel, I was praying that Napoleon wouldn't make the fateful decision to set aside his good-luck charm (Josephine) in favor of a dynastic marriage.

I think that part of my problem with Josephine has been that she realized almost too late how important Napoleon was to her. Webb does a very good job of portraying a woman who has been damaged by her first marriage, and her incarceration during the Revolution. Josephine is so afraid to love, and Napoleon is the exact opposite of her handsome, feckless, faithless first husband.

My only quibble with this book is that I wish that it were about 100 pages longer. That's not the authors fault, publisher's have been cutting word counts right and left. Frankly it's a testament to Webb's talent that she is able to give the reader such a satisfying portrait of Josephine in 320 pages.  I look forward to seeing what else Webb has up her sleeves.  She's certainly a new talent to watch in historical fiction.


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