Review: The Queen’s Fortune by Allison Pataki

The Queen’s Fortune is an interesting title for a book about a woman who didn’t want to be queen; in fact, her “claim to fame” is that she was Napoleon’s jilted lover rather than Queen of Sweden. I was surprised, reading the author’s note, that Allison Pataki seemed to think that not much had been written about Désirée Clary; I wouldn’t have picked up this novel except for the fact that I absolutely loved the book Désirée written by Annemarie Selinko back in the 1950s (and the movie with Marlon Brando). At the same time I felt a little trepidation, because one always regards a “remake” with caution. I needn’t have worried. This was a perfectly acceptable historical novel with a sympathetic heroine. I admit that I found her depiction of Napoleon inconsistent with a man adored by millions of Frenchmen; he didn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. But on the other hand, Napoleon has always been enigmatic. He does write from St. Helena that he deflowered Désirée—that wasn’t very gentlemanly!—but many historians believe he was lying. Nonetheless, this is the angle used in the book. I found it disturbing that when she married General Bernadotte many years later, she didn’t feel the need to tell him she wasn’t a virgin; in fact, she was furious when she discovered that Bernadotte was set up to meet her, like a blind date. What a reversal! He had to apologize to her. Were 18th century Frenchmen so enlightened that she didn’t need to be concerned?

The conflict between republicanism and Napoleon’s tyranny was a major theme in the book, as was the eventual conflict between the emperor and Bernadotte. Désirée, naturally enough, was caught in the middle. An interesting subplot was the relationship between Désirée and her rival Josephine, which evolved into a close friendship—fostered, I believe, by Désirée’s compulsory attendance upon the empress. And there she was at the coronation as part of the emperor’s cavalcade: “With the command from her husband, Josephine strode forward, head held high, a canopy hoisted over her imperial head as was previously done for the pure-blooded queens of France. I stepped into my place behind her and Julie and the glowering Bonaparte sisters, and we made our way to the rear of the cathedral, where our long march up the aisle would begin…Jacques-Louis David stood before the altar, sketching it all, his long hair flying away from his intensely focused face. I wondered: Would he paint the sisters with beneficent smiles, or would he capture the scowls I saw on their faces beside me?” Nicely done. Poor Josephine never succeeded in capturing the good will of Napoleon’s family.

We didn’t get too much warlike history in this book; the scenes were domestic, and the battles happened elsewhere. I found this novel very readable; the character depictions were realistic and believable, and I felt a lot of sympathy for the women.

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