After finishing Michelle Moran’s fantastic novel of the French Revolution, Madame Tussaud, I did something I very rarely do: I immediately put another of her books on hold at the library. Usually I like to space out an author’s novels, as I get bored with reading similar works close together; but that particular book was such a treat that I could not resist one more of her offerings before I dove back into another busy school year. To say that I am disappointed in Ms. Moran’s latest release, the story of Marie Louise, the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, would be a serious understatement. It barely made three stars for me.
All of the elements that made Madame Tussaud so powerful are seen only in bare glimpses in this novel-in fact, when they shimmered around the edges of the prose I only felt more frustrated by Moran’s inability to adequately develop them here. For instance, character development. To use Napoleon as an example-courtiers were endlessly talking about his personality and actions, as opposed to writing more actual scenes in which he appeared and showing him for what he was. This book, like her previous novel, uses multiple narrators. Personally, I would have given Napoleon a voice, in order to flesh out his relationship with Marie Louise more fully and show us their interactions from his perspective. One narrator, Paul, Pauline Bonaparte’s chamberlain, seemed a very unnecessary voice to me, and I could have done without his viewpoint. By the time I finished Tussaud I cared about those people, because Moran had woven me into their psyches, but with this book, the writing just felt like tabloid gossip which never drew me into caring about the characters as human beings.
Her handling of the setting left me feeling similarly flat. Once again she had some wonderful environments to create for her reader, among them the courts of Austria and France and the Isle of Elba. I never, aside from the fact that the hallways were colder in Schonbrunn Palace, got a distinct differentiation of the setting in one place or the other. A small amount of detail was given about clothing, but food, music, art, the palaces themselves, the cities, etc., where skated over but never fully developed-all elements which lend richness to the experience that is historical fiction. The ending was very rushed, and so the reader never gets to know Elba, St. Helena, or Marie Louise’s final home in Parma at all.
This book motivated me to spend about three hours on university sites doing research, and I think what bothers me the most is Michelle Moran’s statement that she drew her research from primary sources, when it is so abundantly clear that the book is full of inaccuracies. Even my cursory search tells me that. Yes, it is a novel, but don’t claim it is anything more if you have not researched it to the bottom of the filing cabinet. I do not mind historical inaccuracies in a novel, but I do mind if there is what appears to be a full disclosure note at the end, and they are not disclosed. Historical Fiction is after all fiction, and that is fine; if you have written a very loose interpretation, just admit that to your readers. Tell them that you took your characters from history, but most of the events are of your own invention. There is nothing wrong with that in a novel, as long as you are up front about it. I found three very credible university papers on the topic, and they all concurred on the following points, diverging from Ms. Moran’s telling of the story, yet not divulged by her in her author’s note:
Central to this novel is a love story between Marie Louise and Count von Neipperg. In fact, they never met until after Marie Louise separated from Napoleon. Interestingly, he was sent by her father to lure her away from France and get her to come home to Austria. Her father wanted von Neipperg to romance his daughter! He loathed the French and would do whatever it took to get his daughter away from her husband, for whom she still had some feelings of love and loyalty. Von Neipperg and Marie Louise did have a wonderful love story, very much as portrayed at the conclusion of the novel, but not before the Bonapartes were married, as Ms. Moran would have her reader’s believe, and Marie Louise certainly wasn’t pining for him during her marriage.
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The second inaccuracy is the friendship that Ms. Moran wrote between Marie Louise and Hortense (the daughter of Napoleon’s first wife Josephine). Why she chose to write in that relationship is beyond me, as it made so little sense, but if she really felt that she wanted it in there it is another thing I feel she should have disclosed in the author’s note, as in reality the two women rarely interacted. Also, if Michelle Moran wanted someone for the confidante role, history provides a real life woman for her; my research showed that Marie Louise and the Duchess of Montebello developed what would become a close lifelong friendship during those difficult years of her marriage to Napoleon. Why not develop that character?
Her final inaccuracy is in her portrayal of Napoleon with regards to his treatment of Marie Louise. My research shows quite clearly that he was not the complete villain that she paints him to be, and it is an accepted historical fact that he loved Marie Louise and doted on her, and she in turn fell in love with him and had to be convinced by her family to leave him after his final defeat in Russia-something the book does not show at all.
In the final analysis, this book lacks all of the depth that made Madame Tussaud so powerful. The reader doesn’t get to be transported to the Imperial court, to wear the gowns and feast and experience the drama of life with Napoleon. And in the end you probably won’t care if you end up on Elba, in Parma, or just about anywhere else, because you never wanted to spend time with any of the characters anyway. If you have not read one of Michelle Moran’s works, please don’t start with this one.