Fourteen-year-old Desiree, a merchant’s daughter living at the time of the French Revolution, meets a dashing young military officer, Napoleon Bonaparte. They become engaged and, though they part, the emotional bond between them never completely breaks. This book, first published in the 1950s and made into a movie, combines romance with a look at a colorful period of history.
The novel is written in the form of Desiree’s diary from 1794 to 1829. The author paints a vivid picture of France during the later years of the Revolution as well as Napoleon’s reign and its aftermath. The heroine is likable and we see her evolve from girl to woman. Her naïve idealism, including her belief that the Rights of Man will shortly be society’s guidepost and her uncritical love for Napoleon, give way to a more realistic and mature take on the world. We get to meet Napoleon’s family, for the most part a fascinating bunch of avaricious parasites. We see Napoleon plunge Europe into war, and, on the home front, dump Josephine. Meanwhile, Desiree comes to see the true merit of a man who loves her, Bernadotte, the future king of Sweden.
Annemarie Selinko could write a touching romantic scene. She also had a sharp eye for political reality, which makes this book more interesting than most historical romances. To me, the best part of this novel was the portrait of Napoleon, a ruthless and tragic figure, who at the same time is charismatic and in some ways likable, a fully rounded fictional character. The style is clear and straightforward, and fairly modern. It takes a leap of faith to imagine you are reading a diary written in the Napoleonic period, but I highly recommend this novel for its well drawn characters and absorbing story.