16 Jul
Posted in: Book Reviews
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Book Review: “The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B” by Sandra Gulland

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Sandra Gulland is an engaging writer offering vivid descriptions beginning in the late 1770’s in Martinique and taking the reader to the Court in Paris.  In Trois-Ilets, Martinique, we join Rose in her worry about being unmarried, without a dowry and no hope at fourteen.  Through conversations, Gulland cleverly leads us to understand the ravages of malaria, rum and gambling on the family dynamics as the pressure mounts for a decision about Rose’s future.  She is punished with eight days in the cellar for going to the voodoo fortune teller who predicts she will be unhappily married and widowed, but most importantly she will be Queen.  The “Devil” woman also predicted that Rose’s sister Catherine would be in the ground before her birthday.  With Catherine’s foretold death, Rose becomes the potential bride of a handsome, well-educated godson of her aunt in France.  With this beginning, I was definitely hooked.

The author uses the diary technique where Rose describes her experience and we are privy to her insecurities, fears, loneliness and secret hopes.  Gulland has done extensive research and offers the reader rich fact-based descriptions of life in 18th Century France.  We learn about her first marriage, children, her husband’s infidelity, insights into the French Revolution including her own imprisonment and the relationship she develops with Napoleon who calls her Josephine.  Initially the diary technique allows us into the nuanced emotional life of the young Rose, but as the book proceeds, the narrative moves into more description of her experiences.  I found myself wanting more depth and insight into how she was absorbing and incorporating these experiences into who she was becoming and how she comes to terms with the internal conflicts and contradictions she faces.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning about this minor historical character and a well-researched plunge into 18th Century France.  The pace is energetic and only an occasional slow pace, however, some parts seem to jump ahead leaving me in some confusion about the flow of the story.  In addition to using the diary, the author also uses correspondence from her husband to tell much of his story.  These techniques work for the most part but limit the reader’s understanding of characters through the eyes of Rose/Josephine.

Overall, I found it to be a gripping story that kept my attention from beginning to end.

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So, what do you think?

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