Book Tour Review: The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien

Thursday, April 10, 2014
Title: The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte
Author: Ruth Hull Chatlien
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 484
Published: December 2013
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 4/5

Tell the emperor that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family.

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.

Highlighting an unusual but overlooked woman, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte tells the story of Elizabeth "Betsy" Patterson. Through her early years in rapidly growing Baltimore to her unlikely marriage and her years of advocating for Bo, Chatlien closely recreates what Betsy's life would have looked like in all stages. Though mostly forgotten today, Betsy's compelling and original story is full of what fans of the genre love -- complicated romances, grand empires, strong-willed women in a less than feminist time.... it makes for a fascinating read. Ruth Hull Chatlien ably and visually recreates everything in her story -- not just her characters, but her settings of Baltimore, and Paris also come to life.

Betsy is a complicated, though thoroughly likeable woman. Over these four hundred pages, you get to see her in many different trying situations, and, ultimately, she's human, and a very young wife and mother for a bulk of the narrative. She's arrogant and demanding, ambitious, selfish, and stubborn. But she's also kind, smart, fiercely protective, ambitious, and loving. Chatlien presents her as a complete person --- one who makes mistakes with her husband, her child, her parents -- but is still real, relateable, and flawed. She makes many mistakes, but you want the best for this determined and capable woman. Ruth Hull Chatlien makes her more than a historical personage -- she turns her into a believable and real woman.

Like a lot of the world during his life and reigns, Betsy's life is ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte and his decisions. Though she was married to his youngest brother Jerome, it is Napoleon who decides the path which Betsy's life follows from early on in the novel. Like with his relationship with Betsy, Napoleon is never seen on page and the two characters never meet. But his impact on the novel's characters and plot is undeniable. Their subtle tet-a-tet provides a lot of the tension for the later sections of the novel. Thwarted by many, and often without allies, Betsy never surrenders to the Emperor or gives up fighting for what she wants. You cannot but admire Chatlien's heroine for The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte.

I liked the complete look into Betsy's life, but the early pacing was something of an issue. The beginning of the novel moves slowly, and was the hardest to invest in. That said, once Betsy begins defying her father, the novel picks up and evolves into a fluid and streamlined story. On a more random note, I also liked the twist for the "historical fiction prophecy" trope --- well done and unexpected.

An engaging story peopled with a great characters, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is an excellent historical fiction offering. Betsy is a protagonist that is both memorable and original and reading her story was a pleasure.

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