As the French revolution ravages the country, Desiree Clary is faced with the life-altering truth that the world she has known and loved is gone and it’s fallen on her to save her family from the guillotine.
A chance encounter with Napoleon Bonaparte, the ambitious and charismatic young military prodigy, provides her answer. When her beloved sister Julie marries his brother Joseph, Desiree and Napoleon’s futures become irrevocably linked. Quickly entering into their own passionate, dizzying courtship that leads to a secret engagement, they vow to meet in the capital once his career has been secured. But her newly laid plans with Napoleon turn to sudden heartbreak, thanks to the rising star of Parisian society, Josephine de Beauharnais. Once again, Desiree’s life is turned on its head.
Swept to the glittering halls of the French capital, Desiree is plunged into the inner circle of the new ruling class, becoming further entangled with Napoleon, his family, and the new Empress. But her fortunes shift once again when she meets Napoleon’s confidant and star general, the indomitable Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. As the two men in Desiree’s life become political rivals and military foes, the question that arises is: must she choose between the love of her new husband and the love of her nation and its Emperor?
From the lavish estates of the French Riviera to the raucous streets of Paris and Stockholm, Desiree finds herself at the epicenter of the rise and fall of an empire, navigating a constellation of political giants and dangerous, shifting alliances. Emerging from an impressionable girl into a fierce young woman, she discovers that to survive in this world she must learn to rely upon her instincts and her heart.
I don’t normally delve into French history (unless it’s artists) when I go trolling for new historical fiction. However, I tend to enjoy historical fiction which focuses on the women rather than the men, so The Queen’s Fortune was just what I was looking for at the time. Because of the time and the place that she lived and her association with Napoleon Bonaparte, Desiree Clary often gets overlooked by historians. Thankfully, Allison Pataki has taken the life of a little-known woman, Desiree Clary and has spun a wonderfully engrossing tale that endures into the modern period.
By all accounts, Desiree Clary was a lovely young woman from a strong French family, and like most girls of her age, she was meant to be married off, advantageously in order to strengthen the family, their connections, and fortunes. As fate would have it, before Desiree could be saddled with an appropriate husband, she met and fell in love with a young Napoleon Bonaparte. Though the two pledged themselves to one another and no other, Napoleon was a fickle man whose only real interest in life was his own advancement and the acquisition of power. To that end, as soon as it suited Napoleon, he threw off his ties to Desiree and married the infamous Josephine.
Though Desiree had been cast aside, she was still tied to Napoleon through her sister who married Napoleon’s greatest supporter, his brother. From an early age, and perhaps better than anyone else, Desiree knew of Napoleon’s temperament, his lust for power, and his inability to care for anyone (even Josephine!) beyond himself. In fact, for the remainder of her life, Desiree will watch – often with a great deal of worry for herself – as Napoleon runs roughshod over those around and directs others’ lives as if they were nothing more than pawns in a game. To that end, even Desiree is advantageously married to one of Napoleon’s most trusted men in an effort to keep both she and he close. Though the arrangement turns out to be an agreeable one for Desiree, there are certainly bumps along the road and though she tries to remain separate from Napoleon and his machinations, she finds she and her family are constantly drawn back in. Through revolution and times of relative peace, Desiree watches as Napoleon and his fortune rise and fall, his life with Josephine ebbs and flows, and his turn as leader of France takes terrifying turns.
Desiree Clary grows into a woman through the reign of Napoleon, serves his wife as a part of her inner circle, and advises her own husband as Napoleon is a paranoid and temperamental man. Through the years, the decades really, Desiree becomes as adept at politics and political intrigue as any man. She learns to navigate treacherous waters and though her life (and that of her family) is often threatened, she learns to protect herself and position herself and her family for safety above all else. Though she never could have imagined what her life would become, Desiree rises higher than ever anticipated and becomes a very real part of the history she is living through.
The Bottom Line: My greatest complaint regarding this book is length; The Queen’s Fortune could reasonably be about a hundred pages shorter and still have the same impact. I am not a fan of excessive detail so, for those of you who are, this really isn’t a complaint at all 😊 I did find the environment and the atmosphere to be very well and clearly conveyed, both literally and figuratively. This book covers a tumultuous time in French history when nothing was certain and the landscape, both political and otherwise, was constantly changing. Revolution was constantly in the air, treachery always afoot, and intrigue was at every turn. All of this is expressed wonderfully in this book and very much keeps the reader on edge. Of all the characters, I found Desiree and Josephine to be the most compelling; Desiree for her maturity and ability to adapt and endure and Josephine for her over-the-top antics that often masked a shrewd and discerning mind. Though Desiree Clary never wanted power or prominence, she got both and she did so without ever betraying her own sensibilities and/or morals. Given the time and place, that, in itself was a stunning achievement. While history most assuredly remembers Napoleon and Josephine, it should also remember Desiree Clary. Afterall, it is Desiree’s line that STILL sits on European thrones today while Napoleon and Josephine’s lines have died out.