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Napoleon’s Bird of Paradise

by Carolly Erickson

Pub Date: Sept. 4th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-312-36735-0
Publisher: St. Martin's

In Erickson’s fanciful retelling, Empress Josephine personifies, ahead of her time, the “head for business/bod for sin” dichotomy.

By dubbing this a “historical entertainment” rather than a historical novel, Erickson (The Last Wife of Henry VIII, 2006, etc.) avoids a more apt classification: gossipy historical romance. Josephine was born Rose, nickname Yeyette, to a failed sugar planter in Martinique. Her first and lifelong liaison is with Donovan de Gautier, a mysterious, sun-kissed adonis who introduces her to sex on the beach. Her platonic love is Scipion, a dashing lieutenant. Betrothed to cruel, foppish Vicomte Alexandre, Josephine journeys to Paris, where she wows the aristocracy with her Tarot fortunetelling. After bearing two children, she takes up money lending. During the French Revolution, she keeps her head; Alexandre is not so lucky. Impoverished, Josephine becomes the mistress of a wealthy military contractor. When she’s not dancing naked in the contractor’s orgy grotto, she’s feathering her own nest hawking substandard goods to the military, which is how she meets little corporal, now general Bonaparte. Josephine seemingly marries Napoleon out of curiosity, to see what happens next. Bonaparte’s coarse, scheming Corsican siblings and his harpy of a mother detest her. Bonaparte himself is so irascible, paranoiac, bilious and profligate, it’s a wonder he manages to conquer half the civilized world. Fortunately, readers share Josephine’s curiosity. How can she abide life with this monster, who castigates his older wife for failing to dress age-appropriately? He still runs cravenly to her for solace even after he’s divorced her to marry teenage Archduchess Marie-Louise. Fulfilling the destiny preordained for her by a shaman on Martinique, and following a comet, no less, Josephine travels to Russia, where she convinces Napoleon not to retreat from Moscow until the first snow—striking a blow not just for the first-wives club, but for the future of Europe!

Rollicking good, admittedly unhistorical, fun—complete with all the dish on the great and powerful, and what they wore, that an Empire-waisted fashionista could desire.