Like other powerless women throughout history, Erickson’s protagonist seizes any opportunity to attain power, aided in no small part by her exceptional beauty and intelligence. Rose Tascher marries a cruel and blatantly disrespectful Alexandre de Beauharnais to alleviate her father’s debts and allow Alexandre access to his family’s fortune. As a Vicomtesse, Rose is introduced to the highest circles of society, where clever females pursue every advantage and position themselves favorably, the lessons of the past, poverty and humiliation seared into memory.
Rose comes to France from Martinique, a French colony. As she realizes from an encounter with a handsome young man in Martinique, Rose has a considerable physical appetite, one commonly accepted in males but frowned upon in females. In short, this woman is a libertine at heart, albeit driven more by expedience than passion, hardly an anomaly in Louis and Marie Antoinette’s France. Given her tendency toward the insatiable, both mental and physical, a beauty with such an ego is a viable match for the petite, powerful personality of Napoleon Buonaparte.
Although this match is still in her future, the Vicomtesse has been preparing for her grand union all her life, enlightened about her future by a seer in Martinique. It is simply a matter of time and place, the fortunate meeting of a woman at the height of her powers and the dynamic, driven man who will claim the heart of France for himself. Years later, at the “old” age of fifty-one, a now-rejected partner, still beautiful, reflects upon the path she has traveled, from obscurity to fame and then rejection in the most public manner, an extraordinary passage for a woman from such humble beginnings.
Surviving insurrection on Martinique, the Revolution in France, and the regime of terror that swept through France in the early days of the Revolution, Rose learns to provide for herself and her children, using those men who contribute to her financial security until she captures the eye of upstart Buonaparte (later Bonaparte), who views his “Josephine” as a life partner, invaluable in his rise to power.
Napoleon harbors true passion for Josephine, embracing her as part of the image he is creating for himself on the world stage. Although she doesn’t share his passion, Josephine is caught in the tide of history, seduced by the energy that surrounds Napoleon’s rise to power.
Erickson’s novel is filled with accurate detail, her private life perhaps more fanciful in this fiction, but there is a central and unavoidable problem with this author’s Josephine: she is not an inspirational protagonist. Yes, she formed a union with Bonaparte at a pivotal time, but her self-centeredness is appalling, a beautiful pragmatist more concerned with self than the events unfolding around her. Even Napoleon is flat, Josephine’s concerns increasingly tedious and, frankly, boring. Even when Napoleon has cast her aside, Josephine focuses only on her own value.
The ironic lesson of this novel: timing is everything. Josephine is as much a fabrication of imagination as Marie Antoinette, the queen cast aside by a bloody revolution, Josephine by a desperate general on the dark side of his fate.