Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review of The Game of Hope by Sandra Gulland, a novel about Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon's stepdaughter

“The key to survival is flexibility.” These words of wisdom, spoken by the drawing instructor at Maîtresse Campan’s boarding school for girls, prove prescient for his pupil, Hortense de Beauharnais. At the beginning of Gulland’s elegantly written young adult novel, set in France in 1798, Hortense is just fifteen. She and her cousin Ém and close friend Adèle (called Mouse), Maîtresse Campan’s niece, form a tightly knit threesome. They attend their lessons and look after the school’s younger charges. However, their mutually supportive group is still part of the larger world, and Gulland carefully presents the historical backdrop as Hortense would have experienced it.

It’s been a mere four years since the Reign of Terror, in which many French aristocrats were executed via guillotine. Hortense’s father was one of them, and she suffers terrible nightmares and worries that she played a role in his death. Her ebullient mother, Rose, now married to General Bonaparte, has been obliged to reinvent herself as well; she now goes by Josephine, Bonaparte’s preferred name for her. Hortense’s brother Eugène is serving with Bonaparte in Egypt, and she writes him heartfelt letters that she’s unable to send. And then there’s her classmate Annunziata, Bonaparte’s rude younger sister, who suddenly decides to call herself Caroline.

Hortense’s lively and warm nature makes her an appealing narrator, and although more colorful personalities threaten to outshine her, she holds her own. Her coming of age and the accompanying shifts in her relationships are among the book’s highlights. While Josephine writes to her daughter that “we’re more like the best of friends,” she also counsels her that “it’s wise not to linger” in an unmarried state, since “a girl quickly loses her bloom.” This is difficult advice for a romantically-inclined teenager to hear, especially when she has a crush on a handsome, older officer.

Over the course of the book, Hortense gains greater perspective on the stepfather she disdains, the father she adored but barely knew, and even her challenging schoolmate, Caroline. Her frequent exclamations (aie!) and parenthetical asides sometimes make her seem younger than her age. That said, the novel strikes the right balance between Hortense’s youthful innocence and the tense uncertainty of the era. It creates a convincing portrait of a young woman learning about her world, navigating through limited choices, and fulfilling her ambitions as much as she’s able.

The Game of Hope was published by Viking Books for Young Readers in June (384pp, hardcover and ebook); I read it from a personal copy. This review forms part of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away a copy of The Game of Hope to one lucky reader! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on October 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US Only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.  Good luck!

Game of Hope


  1. I read this recently, and loved it. Have you read the author's Josephine B. trilogy?

  2. Glad you agree! I haven't read the earlier trilogy yet and ought to. I enjoyed Shadow Queen and Mistress of the Sun, and wish more authors were writing about French history.

  3. Me, too. I'm planning to read the Josephine B. trilogy soon.

  4. Did you ever read "A Rose for Virtue" by Norah Lofts? Lofts spins a readable story of Hortense's life, although a bit romanticized. I think she got the details right and gave a good picture of the times Hortense lived in. I'd recommend it, especially since there aren't many novels about her.

  5. Yes - although it was a long time ago, and I should read it again, since it also shows Hortense as an adult. I was reminded of it when reading The Game of Hope because it mentions that Hortense was awarded the Rose of Virtue at her school.