BECOMING JOSEPHINE

Webb adds new frisson to the often fictionalized travails of an unlikely empress.

Before she achieved the ultimate in distaff power, Josephine, nee Rose Tascher, was the least favorite daughter of a Caribbean sugar planter whose wealth was eroded by gambling. The death of a favored younger sister creates an opportunity for Josephine: In her sister’s stead, she is sent to Paris to wed Alexandre de Beauharnais. Her youthful expectations are soon dampened: While she gives birth to two children, Alexandre philanders. Fidelity in marriage is neither expected nor encouraged for either sex. (This is France, after all.) Josephine, schooled by her friend Fanny, hostess at one of Paris’ most illustrious salons, becomes an adept seductress. (In her 30s now, she is pressed for time.) Revolution interrupts her plan to be supported by a powerful man. Alexandre attempts to find his niche in the new regime, a strategy that will, eventually, lead straight to Madame Guillotine. Josephine languishes in a squalid prison for months. There, she meets Gen. Lazare Hoche, who becomes, pre-Napoleon, her first true love. Lazare engineers Josephine’s release, then departs for foreign service in the company of his new wife. Heartbroken, Josephine takes up with Paul Barras, Paris’ most notorious libertine and richest man, whose fortune derives from supplying revolutionary troops. He’s putty in Josephine’s hands until, all too soon, he’s not. Feeling more overshadowed than ever by time’s winged chariot, she takes up the military supply game herself and is almost ready to declare independence from men when she meets a certain height- and hygiene-challenged Corsican conqueror. After she finally succumbs to Napoleon’s persistent pleas for her hand, there is his large, scheming and vindictive family to contend with. Although the book covers the same ground as many other treatments of Josephine’s life and times, Webb’s portrayal of the range of Josephine’s experience—narrow escapes from bloodshed and disease, dinner-table diplomacy, and her helpless love for Napoleon, her children and a small dog—is exceptionally concise and colorful. A worthy fictional primer on Empress Josephine.

 

Pub Date: Dec. 31, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-14-218065-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Plume

Review Posted Online: Dec. 2, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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