Désirée, a last work written by Austrian novelist Annemarie Selinko and first published in 1951, was a New York Times Bestseller, being translated into 25 different languages as well as being made into an American movie in 1954. Sourcebooks Landmark has reissued the wonderful historical for new generations this October and I really enjoyed the insider's view Napoleon's personal life through the eyes of his first love, a young girl Eugénie Clary, who preferred to be called Désirée.
Désirée, the daughter of a silk merchant, and Napoleon first meet when he is a poor soldier and she is fourteen; they become betrothed soon after but abide her mother's wishes to wait to marry until she is sixteen. Unfortunately, the wait becomes too much as the ambitious Napoleon instead becomes engaged to a richer and more notable lady, whom we know as Empress Josephine. The young Désirée is shocked at the betrayal and we become sympathetic to her plight of lost first love, but we are hopeful for Désirée's future as her life moves on.
I enjoyed learning about the family of Napoleon, as his brother is married to Désirée's close sister, Julie. The family mechanics are at the forefront of Désirée's story which become entwined with the Bonaparte's, and thus the politics of France as the controversial Rights of Man were being accepted and enforced. The story is being told during a turning point for France and the political ramifications that Napoleon causes directly effect Désirée's own happiness with her new family. Being told in a diary style, Désirée seems selfish and naïve at times, but the fact that she is quite young gives her character a lovable quality. Although I enjoyed the first-person narrative, there was a little too much of jumping back and forth in the timeline as she tells the story with each new chapter which became slightly irritating.
The life of Désirée Clary Bernadotte is a fantastic one as she was witness to much of history's events as well as being a part of it, as the author tells it. In reality, how much Désirée actually participated in the politics between Sweden and France and with Napoleon can be debated, but the story takes full advantage of Désirée's ties to the Bonapartes and romanticizes the tumultuous events of the times of France and Napoleon's various political maneuvers. The author has superbly shown Désirée's character that this eccentric woman would have been proud of, and I am so glad to have learned some of Désirée's story through this author's talented work, as I was quite intrigued by the fact that this daughter of a silk merchant eventually becomes Queen of Sweden and mother of the successors to the crown of Sweden to this very day.
The story of France after the Revolution and the upheaval that Napoleon caused became much a part of Désirée's story, and was a fantastic backdrop to the heartwarming relationship Désirée had with her husband Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. The writing style was quick and easy to understand and not dated to its original fifties publication which is surprising. Not a literary masterpiece but just a fantastic story of an otherwise forgotten lady (who is not depicted well on Wikipedia), I am so glad that Sourcebooks Landmark has reissued the tale fifty years after its first printing. Timeless and epic are true adjectives even though I cannot fully explain the draw that the story had for me, it is just one of those novels that will be unforgettable. Annemarie Selinko dramatically relates the life of Désirée, her family, and the Bonapartes though with a blunt matter of factness that tugged at my heartstrings which showed Désirée had sacrificed much for her beliefs of the Rights of Man, but seemingly with no regrets.
Even though Désirée's character was flawed, I found the book to be addictive, accentuated with politics and romance, making this a classic tale for anyone intrigued with France, Europe and Napoleon; I recommend this to any historical fiction fan as one that you should not miss. As a Tudor addict, I now understand the compelling draw that Napoleon and Josephine novels are purported to have, and I cannot wait for the chance to read the trilogy by Sandra Gulland which feature the couple.
This is one of my favourite historical-fiction novels about Napoleon & his first love (unless you count the girl that he used to share cherries with when he was a child). It was later made into a excellent movie, with Brando playing the part of Napoleon.