A sensuous, tragic story about a fascinating woman trying to survive in Post-Revolutionary France.
Josephine Bonaparte is living on borrowed time in the beautiful garden she has created at Malmaison. Her failed attempts to produce an heir for Emperor Napoleon are about to have her booted out of her self-styled paradise as he openly pursues his affairs with a string of fertile and eligible young women.
The lives of two other women are bound up with Josephine’s precarious existence. There is gardener’s wife, Anne Serreaux, who is only too aware that the security of her family depends on the survival of Josephine’s teetering marriage. Then there is botanist’s wife, Marthe Desfriches, contemptuous of tyrant Napoleon and with a score to settle of her own.
I was captivated by the stories of these three women, and the way their relationships shifted between rivalry and solidarity. Despite being so different from each other, they are united as women who are at the mercy of their husbands’ choices and the place that society has designated them.
Stephanie Parkyn has written about an exciting time in history, with sensuous descriptions of decadent Post-Revolutionary France and an ambitious garden populated by flora and fauna from around the world. The descriptions of Australian plants and animals as seen through the eyes of Europeans encountering them for the first time are particularly delightful.
Like Manderlay, Camelot and Shangri-La, Malmaison is born of a beautiful dream. Josephine’s efforts at creating a private utopia are reminiscent of her tragic predecessor, Marie Antoinette, who created a rustic retreat for herself and her inner circle, away from the formality of the Palace of Versailles.
It’s as though both women are trying to escape from the devastation of their own people, which by association, they are somewhat complicit in. But turning a blind eye, both women retreat into their gardens and try to create a world apart from the horrific realities all around them.
And we all know how that ends.