As a clever girl in stodgy, mercantile Baltimore, Betsy Patterson dreams of a marriage that will transport her to cultured Europe. When she falls in love with and marries Jerome Bonaparte, she believes her dream has come true—until Jerome’s older brother Napoleon becomes an implacable enemy.
Based on a true story, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is a historical novel that portrays this woman’s tumultuous life. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, known to history as Betsy Bonaparte, scandalized Washington with her daring French fashions; visited Niagara Falls when it was an unsettled wilderness; survived a shipwreck and run-ins with British and French warships; dined with presidents and danced with dukes; and lived through the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. Yet through it all, Betsy never lost sight of her primary goal—to win recognition of her marriage.
I wanted to read this novel the moment I saw it. I'm a sucker for American historical fiction, and I had no idea Napoleon's baby brother had spent time in the states and had even married an American girl, Betsy Patterson, "the Belle of Baltimore." The story follows Betsy from her childhood in the large family of a wealthy Baltimore shipping merchant to her meeting and whirlwind courtship with French naval officer Jerome Bonaparte, her father's futile attempts to thwart their marriage, and their adventurous honeymoon trip, and then through the fight of her life as she and her young husband, who wed without his family's permission, become subject to the ire of the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, who refuses to recognize the validity of their marriage and makes them pawns in his war with England and the rest of Europe.
The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is a great debut novel. It's a little heavy at times on precise description, but other than that, it's very well written. It's a story that encompasses many years and many characters, and Ms. Chatlien did a fantastic job of constructing the narrative arc, knowing when to narrow in on the important details and when to pull back to offer a broader view. The research seems to have been very thorough, and I love that the author used snippets of real letters surviving to this day to help carry the story along. The pacing suffered just a tad--I really enjoyed the beginning and I was well hooked on the story, but as the middle of the novel approached, I began to weary of the constant push and pull, back and forth--were they or weren't they going to get married, were they or weren't they going to France. It began to drag for me. But once Betsy and Jerome arrived in Europe and faced Napoleon's wrath, the pace picked back up again, and I was burning through the pages to see how everything would shake out and how Betsy would pick up the pieces of her life.
"Nothing ever turns out as we desire. But thus it has ever been, and I must adapt to my fate or be broken by it."
It was very easy to like Betsy and get swept up in her life in the beginning. I liked her so much and was getting so wrapped up in her dreams, in fact, that I did something I rarely do: I looked her up. I thought back on the little I knew of Jerome from reading other Napoleonic fiction--and it wasn't good--so I needed to prepare myself for what was going to happen. I understood how a girl like Betsy could yearn for something more and how she might see the dashing young Bonaparte as her ticket to that something more, but as the story progressed, I began to get annoyed with her single-minded focus on becoming royalty. Even at the end, she was still holding on to a dream that never materialized. I was disappointed that she continued to grasp and reach (in the name of her son, though one gets the feeling she sought to live vicariously through him) rather than make a life for herself with what she had, and what she could have had. I admired the grace and poise with which she conducted herself in the face of so much adversity, but ultimately, I was sorry that she could not see past her ambition to attain the personal happiness that should have been hers.
But Betsy was a real person with real flaws, and I cannot hold her life choices against the novel. Not only does this story shed light on a little-known woman who stood up to one of the most powerful men the world has ever seen, it's also a great portrait of family life in a burgeoning American port city. Baltimore and nearby Washington D.C. take center stage and make fine backdrops for a novel rife with political, economical, and emotional turmoil. And it's nice to get to see the War of 1812 depicted on such a personal level. I'm very glad I took this book on and learned about the life and times of Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys American historical fiction or who is looking for something outside the realm of European royals.
My Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is on a blog tour!
Check out my Q&A with Ruth Hull Chatlien
Check out my Q&A with Ruth Hull Chatlien