Désirée got me started on serious historical fiction – this, or Klaus Kordon, but it’s a close race. Désirée is the true tale of Désirée Clary, told in the form of her fictional diary.
Why her? Because her life touches on larger-than-life history in many ways: Born as a wealthy silk merchant’s daughter in Marseille in 1777 (not the best time for wealthy merchants in France), she got first-hand experience of the late days of the French revolution. Her sister and niece married into the Bonaparte family, while Désirée, who was engaged to you-know-who himself for a while, married Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, a general and Marshal of the Empire.
Her husband, after handling boring everyday life matters like managing cities and contributing significantly to the victory at Austerlitz, was adopted by the Swedish king, and elected as his heir. He aligned Sweden with Napoleon’s enemies, and planned and executed major parts of the decisive victory over Napoleon at Leipzig. He reigned as King of Sweden for twenty-six prosperous years.
Désirée tells this convoluted story in a nuanced, well-researched collection of diary entries. If, at times, it seems like it gives in to name-dropping important historical figures, I can’t complain because this vivid parade of people invoved in the fate of France taught me more (or at least more permanently) than my history teachers ever managed.