Two Empresses was a strange conflation of two lives, one which seemed to be a string of historical events with weak characterization, and the other which seemed to be almost entirely fictional but with an interesting plot line.
The story begins with Rose and Aimee, cousins and members of the French aristocracy on the island of Martinique. Rose is wild, passionate, willing to take risks. Aimee is measured, practical. They encounter a Voodoo queen who promises that they will each become empresses, but that Rose will be filled with sorrow while Aimee will have joy in what comes after her. Fast forward a dozen or more years through Rose’s tumultuous marriage, two children born, the horrific French Revolution, a score of lovers, until she finally–incredibly reluctantly–marries Napoleon Bonaparte and is renamed as Josephine. Meanwhile, Aimee, after receiving her education at a convent in France, takes ship back to Martinique only to be captured by Barbary Pirates and sold to the Turkish sultan where she becomes the favored concubine in his harem.
Both of the women’s narratives were told in first person and since they covered many years of history, more time was spent in getting the events down on paper than in fleshing out secondary characters. In Rose/Josephine’s story, there was little to like about her. She was selfish, vapid, and ready to sleep with anyone who asked her. The other characters in her life didn’t receive much fleshing out, and it felt like a string of one historical event after another combined with a Josephine-pity-party. When she finally decided she loved Napoleon, there was no reason given, other than her own survival, and the about-face was, frankly, confusing.
Aimee’s story was more intriguing. She showed resourcefulness in navigating the treacherous waters of the harem as she becomes Sultana Naksidil and defends her adoptive son Mahmoud against plots. The main difficulty with the Aimee plot line is that scholars have fairly definitively proven that the intriguing Sultan Naksidil was of Georgian descent, not French. Which means that the Aimee legend is just a legend, and of a totally different level of historicity than Josephine’s life.
I did appreciate how the French history regarding Napoleon finally “tied together” in the epilogue as we learn how Turkey decides to act in the altercation between France and Russia. But in other respects, this novel was a strange mixture of oil and water with two empresses that might have been better served if dealt with separately.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley and the publisher. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.