Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: March 28, 2014

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.

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Triple portrait of Elizabeth Patterson
by Gilbert Stuart, 1804.
I was fairly optimistic when I first opened Ruth Hull Chatlien's The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. My friends were recommending it left and right and though I possessed a passing familiarity with the material, I couldn't help wondering over the enthusiasm I was seeing from my peers. Curiosity got the better of me and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Like all biographical fiction, the events highlighted in Chatlien's debut were set before the author ever put pen to paper so I don't give much credit for the direction of the novel. If I wanted an authentically detailed look at Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, I'd have been looking to Charlene M. Boyer Lewis, Helen J. Burn, Claude Bourguignon-Frassetto, or Carol Berkin but factual exposition wasn't on my agenda.

No. I wanted something engaging, something fun. Something I could indulge in and Chatlien's work seemed to fit the bill. I may be wrong, but the book appears to be the only fictional account of Elizabeth on the market and while I understood her story to be intriguing in its own right, I was eager to see what Chatlien would do with the material, what she would say through Elizabeth's romance with Jérôme Bonaparte, and how she'd reimagine their personalities and the world they inhabited. Unfortunately for me, the answers to those questions weren't entirely satisfying.  

Like Jennifer Chiaverini, Chatlien is prone to fact dumping which is well and good in nonfiction, but not something I particularly appreciate when working my way through a novel. I know and love this period of history and had great difficulty being subjected to a history lesson every few pages. Had these details been worked into the story I might feel differently, but more often than not these passages felt clumsy, inappropriate and forced.  

To make matters worse, Chatlien's heroine proved thoroughly unconvincing. One minute Betsy is telling Jerome he must restrain himself, be patient and approach her father before pursuing her and the next she is demanding a hasty marriage. She is scandalized by the impropriety of her father's philandering but is possessed of a sexual appetite that is shockingly unseemly in an unwed debutante. She balks when presented with Jerome's perception of feminine fashion and is at the same time insulted when her peers are offended by the lack of modesty exhibited in her dress. Is she a traditionalist or impetuous? A prude or a temptress? Conventional or a radical? I have no bloody clue...

This lack of clarity extended to every member of the cast and made it impossible for me to understand the themes of this piece. Atmospherically, I was also disappointed as I never felt the period come to life under Chatlien's pen. 

When all is said and done, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte wasn't what I expected and though I can see certain appeal for those taking in the story for the first time, I can't see myself recommending it forward in future. 

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Betsy closed her eyes, and almost immediately, her imagination carried her to another place, to Napoleonic France at the height of the emperor’s power. In her vision, she was still young and beautiful, and her husband was at her side. Together they crossed the parquet floor of an imposing reception room decorated with red draperies, neoclassical paintings, and gilt moldings. Crowds of courtiers watched their progress, but she and Jerome kept their gaze fixed straight ahead on a gilded throne with a round back that held a uniformed man who, although of no great physical height, towered over all of Europe by virtue of his genius. When they reached the dais on which he sat, his grey eyes drilled into Betsy. Jerome introduced her, and she made a deep curtsy. Napoleon rose and, taking her by the hand, raised her up and kissed her on each cheek
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