Pauline Bonaparte, sister of the infamous Napoleon, is as flirtatious an imperial woman as they come. Flitting through France on the arm of countless men, Pauline pays little attention to observing the proprieties of life as a widow — and a young mother. After meeting the dashing Camillo Borghese, an Italian prince, she’s determined to marry again . . . much to Napoleon’s disapproval.
And goodness knows you don’t cross Napoleon. Against her brother’s wishes, Pauline becomes a Borghese — a union uniting two powerful European families. Stricken with mysterious illnesses but unwilling to tamper her seductive tendencies, Pauline is told to be a “good Roman wife” to Camillo . . . but doesn’t know where to begin. What follows is an account of their tumultuous marriage, interwoven with the story of Sophie, the fictional cousin of Pauline’s first husband. And Sophie observes everything . . . unobserved.
Lorenzo Borghese’s The Princess Of Nowhere is a historical novel built around Pauline, one of his own ancestors, and is inspired largely by a famous marble sculpture of her from 1808. Reclining and lovely, Pauline’s reputation for being a temptress spread throughout Europe — and nearly destroyed her union with Camillo, which was always precarious at best. In his debut novel, Borghese himself interprets the whims of love and disgust between them, highlighted always by a seemingly physical pull back to one another.
I’ll say this from the onset: I didn’t come into this one with high expectations. Borghese is a familiar figure to me from his stint on “The Bachelor,” where his charming good looks and the “prince” before his name made him a favorite with the ladies. Since his unsuccessful attempts at finding romance on national television, Borghese has developed his own line of high-end pet supplies and appeared on a reality show overseas.
Basically, I didn’t fancy this guy a novelist.
But you know what? This book wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, but it definitely wasn’t terrible — and I wouldn’t rank it anywhere near some of the novels I’ve loathed this year. For as ridiculous, shrewd and unlikeable as Pauline is, you can’t help but feel some sort of affinity for her. She’s beautiful, cunning and ill-tempered, capable of manipulating everyone around her and coming out ahead. But there’s something vulnerable there, too, especially as her own life is torn apart by sickness and grief. Inside her ability to be a puppet-master is a tender heart.
Or so we’re lead to believe.
My chief difficulty with The Princess Of Nowhere is this: I never really connected with Pauline . . . or anyone. Sophie is very interesting, having been taken in by Pauline as a child and growing up quickly as one of the ladies attending her at all times. She’s a Leclerc, the cousin of Pauline’s deceased first husband, and she’s as taken with her new provider as the rest of the world. As Pauline becomes more extravagant and falls further out of favor with her powerful brother, though, Sophie is confronted with the “real” Pauline . . . but still can’t bring herself to abandon her. Sophie can barely remember a time away from Pauline, who is as bright as the sun, and is terrified of what being away from that warmth might mean for her.
Richly textured and brimming with historical details, I enjoyed learning a bit about a woman I’d never even heard of: this mysterious, lovely sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. And the settings in France and Italy were gorgeous, though I never became completely immersed in my surroundings. Pauline and Camillo’s romance did feel real — especially the jealous rages — but I never really fell in step with Borghese’s storyline. It seemed to meander without destination, though when I finally realized where we were headed? Well, it was just sad.
I finished with an uneasy feeling, as though nothing had been resolved for me though the story reached a natural conclusion, and that’s not a great way for me to end a book. Still, for those interested in the Borghese/Bonaparte families or readers looking for historical fiction told from a different angle, it’s an enjoyable enough read. Just keep those expectations low.
3.5 out of 5!