Mara's Reviews > The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon's Court

The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
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's review
Jul 03, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, paris

Maria-Lucia, Archduchess of Austria, is planning to marry the man she loves and to one day rule Austria as regent for her ailing brother. Unfortunately for her, she is instead shipped off to France to be rechristened 'Marie-Louise' and become Napoleon’s “second empress” (replacing his beloved but barren Josephine). Once there she must contend not only with Napoleon, who is unsurprisingly pretty horrible as a husband, but also his eccentric family…most notably his sister Pauline, who spends much of the novel fantasizing about marrying her brother herself in order to co-rule Egypt as brother-sister Pharaohs. (Yes, really!) Despite her intense dislike of her new husband and her new in-laws, however, Marie-Louise must play the role of dutiful wife to perfection to appease Napoleon and protect her beloved Austria.

I had really high hopes for this novel after Madame Tussaud, and I have to say that I didn’t find it to be quite as impressive as that book. Moran alternates between three narrators (Marie-Louise, Pauline, and Pauline’s steward) and the book is really too short to do that and fully develop all three of them—Pauline in particular seems cartoonishly over the top for most of the book rather than like a real woman with relatable flaws and desires.

However, The Second Empress is a really engrossing read and it’s a lot of fun to root both for the extraordinarily capable Marie-Louise and against Napoleon and his loathsome sister. There were points where I questioned the historical accuracy of how various characters were being portrayed, but Moran has a great Author’s Note at the end that explains her choices. I also liked that Moran adds an extra layer to the story by including Pauline’s Mulatto steward, Paul Moreau, as one of the narrators. I never quite understood why he was so attached to Pauline, but I enjoyed the glimpses of his past in Haiti and valued his outsider’s perspective on events.

Even though Madame Tussaud will remain my favorite of Moran’s books, The Second Empress definitely further cements her reputation as an author who dependably delivers well-researched and entertaining historical novels…can’t wait to see who she writes about next!

(ARC provided by NetGalley)
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