Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: The Princess of Nowhere by Lorenzo Borghese

Title: The Princess of Nowhere
Author: Lorenzo Borghese
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Avon
Published: 2010
Pages: 336

Rating: 7 out of 10

This is the story of Pauline Bonaparte, the sister of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and her cousin, Sophie. Pauline is a stunningly beautiful, wild young widow who would rather be seducing handsome courtiers than donning mourning clothes. In an effort to control her scandalous behavior, it is arranged that she should be re-married to a Borghese prince, Camillo. Pauline's young ward Sophie, who is fascinated by her older, glamorous cousin, watches the two fall in love, only to be torn apart by Pauline's many affairs and selfishness. As Sophie grows up, she sees that her cousin is not so perfect as she would like to think, but cannot help but remain enamored with her. We see Pauline and Sophie go through life together, through Napoleon's reign, to his downfall and the ruin of their families.

I was skeptical when I learned that the author of this book was a Borghese prince himself, an actual relative of the characters in this book. The image of a spoiled prince writing a bad book, and getting it published through money and influence, came to mind.
However, I needn't have worried. Born with royal blood or not, Lorenzo Borghese is an author I will certainly be reading more of.

The Princess of Nowhere is a powerful picture of so many things - of life during the time period, of the intricate inner-workings of the infamous Bonaparte family, and of a doomed marriage that contains an odd sort of love story in the background.

The writing style was realistic and grounded, and so very life-like. I felt that I could touch every ostentatious silk gown that Pauline wore, that I could picture her grand palaces choked in glittering wealth.

Every character was well drawn, with Pauline, of course, being most memorable. Only recently did I discover that Pauline even existed, while reading another book. This glimpse into her life was such a realistic one that now I feel as if I have read twenty of her stories (as I have with Anne Boleyn, for example).
Pauline is a remarkably selfish, shameless individual. When her young son passes away, she lashes out in anger toward anyone she can possibly blame, including Sophie (for being there at the moment of his death) and her husband (even though he was hundreds of miles away at the time and never even knew Dermide was sick until it was too late). She has a talent for twisting circumstances around into whatever she wants them to be, and her logic often hardly makes any sense, though she seems to take her convictions seriously.
Pauline is also a very sexual person, and she isn't afraid of letting everyone else know it. In her time period, her behavior would have been doubly shocking and scandalous. Her countless affairs are a regular feature in the gossip columns and cartoons, which everyone in the royal family finds embarrassing except for Pauline herself.
Since she thrives off of attention, Pauline often feigns illness. Her sicknesses are such a regular occurrence that she has made her royal doctor a rich man, and he is by now quite used to coming in and prescribing imaginary antidotes to her imaginary sicknesses. In one scene, Pauline poisons herself and Sophie with arsenic, so that she will truly get sick. Her husband has grown weary of her games, and will no longer believe that she is ill unless she is actually near death, so she sets up her own, truly brink-of-death game. I was shocked, and would like to know if there is any bit of truth in this part of the story. Why poison Sophie as well?
In another scene, Pauline seduces a young man, just because Sophie told her she had her first crush on him.
Pauline is selfish and, at times, evil. She is scheming and treacherous, and you would do best not to trust her.
And yet, you can't help but love her as well. Amidst her affairs, we see that she truly does love her husband Camillo. Her actions cause her to lose many of those that she loves, and she seems child-like in how she wants to take everything back now that it is too late. And her wild behavior, though never to anyone's benefit but hers, is without a doubt entertaining and lively reading. Pauline is charming in how spirited and unscrupulous she is.
She is the perfect embodiment of an anti-heroine: One that we love and hate all at once.

Sophie was set up to be the main character in the beginning, but ended up taking second place to Pauline. Largely since she is a child for a majority of the book, she is never as strong a character as her older cousin, but I loved her all the same. Her fierce devotion to Pauline, even after being so mistreated by her, was interesting and sad. By the end of the book, Sophie has grown into a strong young woman, and the reader cannot help but think that she is deeper and more "royal" than Pauline could ever have been.

Prince Camillo Borghese was also a very well done character. When he is engaged to be married to Pauline (but having doubts due to rumors), he is enamored by her beauty the first time he sees her. However, it is not until he accidentally sees her asleep, without makeup or fancy clothes, that he decides to marry her. He says that now she will always be beautiful to him, because he has seen her "when she thought that no one was looking."
I found this endearing and very sweet, but already, it sounded as if he was not exactly the type of man that Pauline would be suited for.
After they marry, Pauline finds that her husband is prudish in the bedroom, and that he does not take the news of her affairs well. Though he plays along with her games for a time, eventually he tires of this and ignores Pauline - the one thing she will never be able to take. Even her attempts at seducing him are unsuccessful, as what he really wants is not a whore but a wife.
While Sophie vows to stay with Pauline until the end, whatever the consequences, he eventually dismisses Pauline with no intention of ever seeing her again. I had to wonder who, in the end, made the right decision.

The setting was interesting as well, and we glimpse brief touches of politics, though the book focuses largely on the characters. Napoleon's wars are not mentioned very much in the book, save for the fact that Camillo goes off to war. While this may sound unrealistic, I actually believe that the author's choice to not involve the Napoleonic Wars was a fitting one.
Pauline, in her neglecting to ever mention her brother's, and the world's, news went with her character perfectly. The only news she cared to read was the gossip about herself.

As is necessary, of course, in a book about an infamously sleazy woman, The Princess of Nowhere contains quite a few sex scenes. I am normally very picky about sex in historical fiction. It often just doesn't feel... historical.
The scenes here were quite heavy on description, but I suppose that they were necessary to fill out Pauline's character as a very sexual woman. Just as the scenes were hovering on Harlequin, they moved on.

I loved the way that the story followed the character's lives over many years, giving you a sense of time passing. Every emotion behind the events here was well written and believable.

I absolutely loved this book! Recommended.