by Annemarie Selinko (1914-1986)
594 pgs. Sourcebooks, 2010.
Originally published, 1951. Translated from the German, 1953.
A number one New York Times bestseller in 1953, this historical novel is based on a true story and is known to have helped bond generations of women readers who were first introduced to the book by their mothers or grandmothers. The story is told from the perspective of a merchant’s daughter, Désirée Clary, who was at one time engaged to Napoleon Bonaparte before he cast her aside in favor of Josephine. Désirée is, of course, heartbroken, but she gradually recovers and eventually marries a French general by the name of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. Bernadotte serves in Napoleon’s court and, through his political ambition, is eventually nominated first Crown Prince of Sweden, where he attends to his duties largely in the absence of Désirée, who prefers to remain in Paris. With the death of King Charles, Bernadotte is named King of Sweden, and Désirée, known there as Desideria, finds herself Queen.
Désirée has a strong romantic undercurrent, but it is perhaps best known as a richly evocative historical novel, brimming with the trappings and rivalries and rituals of Parisian high society and Napoleon’s royal court.
The novel is so popular among some readers that they have created websites focusing on the book or have blogged about it in glowing terms. Thanks to a 2010 reprinting, we have now been able to replace our rebound, 1953 Morrow edition. A film of the book starring Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons was made in 1954.