For Napoleon’s stepdaughter, nothing is simple — especially love.
Paris, 1798. Hortense de Beauharnais is engrossed in her studies at a boarding school for aristocratic girls, most of whom suffered tragic losses during the tumultuous days of the French Revolution. She loves to play and compose music, read and paint, and daydream about Christophe, her brother’s dashing fellow officer. But Hortense is not an ordinary girl. Her beautiful, charming mother, Josephine, has married Napoleon Bonaparte, soon to become the most powerful man in France, but viewed by Hortense as a coarse, unworthy successor to her elegant father, who was guillotined during the Terror.
Where will Hortense’s future lie?
Note: Spoilers, obviously.
You know me. A historical book. A historical book about France. An historical book about France and a girl in a boarding school. Was there any doubt that I would love this? Any at all? I didn’t think so. The French Revolution was the first period in history that I fell in love with – and it’s arguably the one that began my journey to study history in university in the first place. So why on Earth didn’t I study it more? Technically because my school didn’t offer any classes that went into depth about it, but I’m still bitter.
I haven’t had a terrible amount of luck with NetGalley books recently. With the added bonus of the guilt of getting behind on most of them and missing publication dates, they were going pretty slowly for me. This one did too, at first, but it quickly picks up. The first thing that appealed to me was the cover – I absolutely adore covers that are painted in an old style such as this one. I’m a huge fan of the history of art, so if there is one thing that will encourage me to pick up a book, an art-inspired cover will do that.
All of the characters are lovely and I fell in love with them so fast. There was just something about the personalities of the girls at the Institute that I feel we would have been great friends. Hortense was a really relatable protagonist – you could feel her internal struggles with what is expected of her, and what her heart wants – which are often two very different things. It was interesting to see her relationship with her mother, the wife of Napoleon, and Napoleon himself. One of the things I liked best about her journey was her joy in the composition of music. I do wish that there was more written about it. Passion for music seemed to be the one thing that kept Hortense sane, and it is such a shame that she kept it hidden from most.
This book really has some good secondary characters as well, especially the girls at the Institute. I especially liked the relationship growth between Hortense and Caroline, and thus Caroline and the rest of the girls. Sometimes there is only a small but stubborn bump in the way of friendship, and they overcame it to become great companions. Their relationship with the men also felt sweet and genuine. When Hortense is eventually reunited with her brother Eugene, I loved their banter with each other. You could tell they loved the other and really looked out for them. Of course, it helps that Eugene is close friends with Christophe, the subject of Hortense’s heart. I really enjoyed following along with her journey trying to get Christophe to realise she exists as more than just his friend’s little sister, and I really thought they would end up together. It breaks my heart to know that they did not. Their relationship really does blossom into something beautiful, even if it may not seem so – but then again, you must remember this is post-Revolutionary France, where relationships had a very different form than they do today. Neverthless, even though Christophe fills the mind of Hortense for the better part of the book, it is not an overwhelming romance. It is instead simply a part of who Hortense is, and in combination with what is expected of a young woman in this period. She is lucky enough to have had someone she liked and could properly pursue – which is why it is so disappointing to find out that after the book ends, she is forced into an unhappy marriage with another, as per Napoleon’s wishes.
Napoleon also becomes an interesting character in this book – but not so much of his own merit, but because of his relationship with others. There is a little bit of naivety with the majority of the characters here regarding what Napoleon’s actual role is within France. It’s clear what his position is, but as far for what that means for others below their standing, it is not elaborated upon. Because of this, Napoleon doesn’t really seem like a bad character at all. Boring, yes, but his commanding side is not particularly elaborated upon. As much as I am a bit disappointed that we gloss over that, I do not think that the rest of the book’s qualities would have blossomed as much if Napoleon and his actions were given any more attention. Even the Reign of Terror, while mentioned many times within the book and is in fact, the way that Hortense lost her own father, is a bit glossed over regarding how terrible it was for the people of France. However, the effect of the book’s relationships would not be as significant if it was given more attention. Sometimes, to tell a certain story, other aspects of it must be minimised, and in this case, I don’t mind terribly. One of the most beautiful relationships is between Hortense and her Maîtresse, her teacher. It was one of such love and care, and so much more compassion and concern that I have seen in historical novels. Having stemmed from a real relationship (most of the letters that Maîtresse writes are the actual letters simply translated from French), it made the relationship on the pages seem that much more real and genuine.
The thing that I do like about this book is that there is not really a specified timeline for it. There is no real definite beginning to Hortense’s story, and there is no real ending. It flows really nicely this way. It especially makes the relationships work better, as you can slowly piece together the intensity of some relationships, and how they evolve over the course of the novel. Even at the end, when it feels like it may end rather abruptly because there is no build-up to it, you get the feeling that Hortense’s story continues past the last page. There is no big event that causes the end of the book, and I really prefer that kind of ending.
The sad part is of course, the afterward, that tells you Hortense and Christophe never get to pursue their relationship. She is forced to marry someone who she never gets along with, and has a rather miserable life to follow. Ém at the very least eventually does come to care for her husband. Caroline perhaps has the happiest ending, for she was the one most pleased with her marriage to begin with. Mouse, rather tragically, does not. Neither does Josephine, really, eventually abandoned by Napoleon. Because so much happens before this book begins and continues to happen after it ends, you really get the idea that this novel is but a mere glimpse into the lives of its characters – especially since you don’t really see the outcome of some of the events in the novel until after it finishes. Sometimes you can even pretend that the afterward, if unfortunate, doesn’t exist at all. In that case, Hortense and her friends have a bright and beautiful future ahead of them. If only history were so kind.
Final Rating: ★★★★
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I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.