The Second Empress
Michelle Moran
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Buy *The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon's Court* by Michelle Moran online

The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon's Court
Michelle Moran
320 pages
August 2012
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Twice-emperor of France whose military endeavors once dominated Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte was a risk-taker, a gambler and a workaholic genius. He was also a vicious and cynical misogynist, a tyrant who could enthrall men and terrorize women. Told through the first-person narrative of Pauline, the Princess Borghese, Napoleonís closest sister, and his second empress, Marie-Louise, Moranís tale unfolds in exotic tones that reflect Napoleonís greed, materialism, and fanatical desire for warfare.

Such is the landscape that innocent Marie-Louise and conniving Pauline are thrust into, both to walk very different but often interconnecting paths. From an early age, Austrian Marie-Louise is told she must marry Napoleon, an arrangement brokered as part a humiliating peace treaty. As Marie ponders a new life with this ďsquat little emperor,Ē sheís reminded that only sixteen years prior, her great-aunt Marie Antoinette was beheaded by the wild-eyed and fanatical revolutionaries who ultimately took control of that country.

Moran makes it clear there will be bad history coupled with an unfair dose of animosity between Pauline and her sister Caroline towards Marie, a girl cast as a naive young interloper. Thrust from the familiar hatreds and desires of the people she loves, this ďreal Princess with eight centuries of Hapsburg blood in her veins" finds herself encased as Napoleonís wife, the butt of fat jokes and subservient to a man whose taste for the lavish, crude, and unrefined is well-known throughout Europe. All the while, Marie holds dear to the promise of her beloved lover, Adam Neipperg: that he and her father will one day come to rescue her.

Hundreds of diamonds catch the light in the ballroom of the Chateau de Compiegne. Gemstones dazzle from every surface, the room sybolic of Napoleon's lavishness, greed, and excess when an entire revolution has left half a million people dead. In this environment, Pauline Bonaparte flaunts her undeniable beauty, in thrall to her handsome mulatto chamberlain, Paul Moreau, her staunchest ally and her fiercest guard. Weakened by venereal disease, the vulnerable, fearsome, fiercely promiscuous Pauline is utterly blinded by love and devotion to her brother. Against this landscape of lies and ambition, opportunism and betrayal, never in all of France have there been two siblings tied together with such raw ambition.

While Moranís easy-to-read prose style exposes the lives and loves of Marie, Pauline, and Paul Moreau, she also reveals Napoleonís spectacular downfall, beginning with the War of 1812, in which he suffered a humiliating defeat in Russia, leaving most of his army was destroyed and his reputation in tatters. Interweaving multiple story threads, Moran shows us how Napoleonís lifelong plan to conquer the world was blindsided and how a coup attempted in his absence only reinvigorated his enemies in Europe, who formed a grand alliance with the single intention of removing him from power.

From the opening pages, Moran captures our interest through the years of birth, death and misfortune, from the absolutely wicked to the unquestionably benevolent. While most of the drama takes place on the political stage among Napoleon, his advisers and his sisters, Marie proves to be the voice of moral authority, while her seething enmity toward Napoleon leads to a rift in their marriage. While we read Napoleonís tender letters to his beloved Josephine, exiled after rumors of infidelity, we also witness Paul Moreauís silent desire to return to his homeland of Saint-Domingue, where he remembers fondly the afternoons he and Pauline once shared, the air always heavy with orange blossoms and the scent of summer rain.

Events spiral out of control, Napoleon facing impossible odds, Marie cast into the role of captured Austrian princess. Although Pauline and Paul wind though the tale in a delicate series of long, contrasting threads, the imposing figure of Napoleon is who truly inhabits this novel, a man who forged an empire though instability and civil war but was ultimately torn asunder by his own vanity and blind ambition.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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