Chatlien’s debut historical fiction celebrates the drive and desires of the real-life Betsy Patterson, a Baltimore merchant’s daughter who married a Bonaparte.
As a child and young woman, Betsy Patterson was precocious, lovely, dismissive of America and not terribly eager to sit around and do what she was told. Of her American suitors, she laments, “Marriage to any one of them would sentence me to a life...bearing child after child until my mind is rusted from disuse.” When a European lieutenant comes to Baltimore, Betsy finds love and opportunity—the lieutenant is, after all, Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s youngest brother. The two wed, but when Napoleon refuses to acknowledge the marriage, which may hinder the potential for political alliances, the newly minted Madame Bonaparte discovers that a court life is not so easily attainable for an American girl. Her ambition doesn’t subside, however. Instead, it underlies her new mission to receive recognition of her union, which means pitting herself against the most powerful man in the world. “Napoleon dismissed me as expendable because I am American and a woman,” she says. “Someday I will make him see that he was wrong on both counts.” Betsy is a captivating heroine whose independence and intelligence are given their proper due in Chatlien’s novel. Against the backdrop of world events, such as the battle at Waterloo and the War of 1812, Betsy fights her own, smaller battles, ignoring censure from her stern father and other compatriots who criticize her tenacity and her scandalous French fashions. Her story has suspense, a rapidly moving plot and rich details of 19th-century life, from quotidian tasks to grand parties with Dolley and James Madison at the Presidential Mansion. The novel is so vivid, in fact, that its fictional nature can seem dubious at times. Still, it undoubtedly offers compelling insights into the minds of real, deeply engrossing individuals.
A fascinating account of one woman’s fight to defiantly stray from her predetermined path.