I recently took a quiz, put out by the Brazen Careerist, which was supposed to show you if you are happy or interesting. The point being, that interesting people are not happy and happy people are not interesting. But does it follow that all unhappy people are interesting? If you read Sandra Gulland's The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, you will see that the answer is a resounding no.
I was really looking forward to reading this book. I like historical fiction, I like romance, I like this time period, and I felt I deserved some comfort fiction. The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B is the first in a trilogy about the life of Josephine Bonaparte. It's written as if it were her diary. An international best-seller, the Amazon customer reviewers praise it to the skies. So you can imagine my disappointment when I realized what a crappy book it is.
Josephine Bonaparte led an interesting life. Born in obscurity in Martinique, she managed to become empress of France and in the meantime married a viscount, was imprisoned during the French Revolution, hobnobbed with the leaders of the French Republic and raised two children. Yet Gulland makes her as dull as paint, a remarkable achievement considering the material she had to work with.
There is Josephine herself (called "Rose" in her pre-Napoleon years). Here's a sample from her "journal."
I don the clothes of the widow Beauharnais. The dull black suits my soul, reflects the death I feel within. Even my children cannot wake me from my slumber. Stiff white gauze tickles my throat. A veil of taffeta covers my boyish curls. I am a ghost. I am a survivor.
And so it goes. She weeps, she sighs, she expresses sentimental thoughts, she makes irritating dramatic pronouncements. Perhaps she has heard disturbing news about her husband. She will write something like, Alexandre….my husband…the father of my children. Mon Dieu. Those affected little "mon Dieus" really got to me. The book reads like a catalog of all the things that happened to Josephine, and her emotional reactions to them, but what Gulland apparently fails to realize is that describing someone's emotions does not make her a well-developed character. A large portion of the book—at least 200 pages out of its 429—details Josephine's activities during the French Revolution, during which she tirelessly visited various officials advocating for her imprisoned friends. The real Josephine probably did do this. It appears that Gulland researched her subject carefully, but it's difficult to believe that the lumpen, passive, weepy, fictional Josephine could have had an influence over her own chambermaid, let alone the likes of Jean Tallien or the Viscomte de Barras. At one point, someone screams at her, "I am sick of your tears!" possibly the only convincing statement in the entire novel. Not only is all the political intrigue unbelievable, it's also deadly dull. I had a hard time keeping all the French republicans straight, but then I realized it hardly matters since they don't serve as characters in their own right and only as vehicles to move Josephine's story along.
Then there are Josephine's island beginnings, which of course must be tainted with voodoo. There's an early visit to an Obeah woman who tells her she will be queen. There is a disapproving priest, an angry grandmother, a dying sister, a punishment in which she's locked in the basement for eight days. All very thrilling and dramatic if it weren't so stupid.
Gulland also pesters the reader with footnotes. Josephine might receive a letter that says, "Oh guess what? The Duke of Blahblahblah and his wife have had a baby girl." Then there will be a footnote telling us who that baby girl grew up to be who she married, how she will be tangentially connected with Josephine's descendents. Who the freak cares? You suspect the letter was put into the text simply to drop the name of the baby girl who grows up to be Somebody even though she has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Gulland would have done better to write a biography of Josephine rather than this fictional hybrid.
Then there's the writing itself, sentimental, mawkish, low-grade romance novel stuff. At one point there's even mention of a "manhood" of the throbbing variety. Oh Sandra, surely you knew better. For some reason, Gulland felt it important to convince her audience that Josephine was a good person, so there is much hand-wringing about beggars, secret slipping of coins to the household slaves, virtuous rejection of potential lovers. At one point, after traveling from Martinique to France (Josephine's description of the entire journey goes something like this: Seven weeks of mal-de-mer. Ah, to step on firm ground again.) There's a footnote telling us of the belief that Josephine and the ship's captain were lovers. At last something interesting and it's glossed over in a footnote.
Reading this novel actually made me angry. There was the let-down of expecting some glorious brain candy and getting something two steps up from a Harlequin romance. There was resentment, I admit it, that Sandra Gulland is probably living off her royalties while I am dumping urinals and venting my frustration with vicious little book reviews. Is there something wrong with me that I can't enjoy this book? Or maybe I'm secretly gloating over my superior taste. And yet I hate snobbery. And why are books that are this bad such huge best-sellers? I'm sure some of you have read it. What did you think?
For comparison: I also recently read The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. (Here's what's awesome about Penelope Fitzgerald: she published her first novel when she was in her sixties.) The Bookshop is not a historical romance, but it is a fine example of what makes a good book. Like Josephine, it's mainly a somber book. But here's the thing: it's also very funny. Because real life is a well-mixed concoction of comedy and tragedy and if you want to write about real life, or a real person, you need to include the comedy. Relentless sorrow, no matter how dramatic, is boring.
Perhaps it's better to compare Josephine to other historical romances I've read. Okay, then. How about Forever Amber, the archetype of the trashy novel? Forever Amber is actually pretty good. Oh, it's trashy, but it's so much more alive than Josephine. There's spectacular dialogue—the author availed herself of the rich store of colorful 17th century English and its insults—and Amber is utterly whorish, but also sympathetic although no effort is made to give her a gloss of morality or sentiment. I guess I'm not such a snob after all.