But Carlotta, though her bedside lamp glows, sleeps; down the hall, Maximilian sleeps; around the corner, Pepa, serene princess, sleeps; and, most sweetly of all, an angel on pillows of gossamer, the tiny Agustin sleeps with his thumb in his mouth, never dreaming that his home is being abandoned, his father’s and mother’s clothes, shoes, knickknacks, jewelry, books, and papers packed up. – from The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire –
While Americans fight and die during the Civil War, another battle continues in Mexico. Political unrest within that country sets the stage for a French invasion led by Louis Napoleon. Propped up by the French and accompanied by his wife Carlota, the Archduke of Austria (Maximilian von Habsburg) reluctantly arrives in Mexico City to secure his role as Emperor. Faced with no child of their own, Maximilian and Carlota arrange a plot to take custody of a toddler, whose grandfather was the first Emperor of Mexico, in order to provide an heir to the throne. Agustin de Iturbide y Green is the child of a Mexican diplomat and an American belle with ties to Washington politics. The Iturbides agree to the custody arrangement when it becomes evident that Maximilian intends to take the child with or without their consent. Within days, however, Agustin’s distraught mother begins a campaign to reunite with her child – and in so doing ignites an international scandal while Maximilian’s empire begins to crumble and Carlota slips into madness.
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is a fictionalized re-telling of this time in Mexican history. Filled with colorful characters, the novel brings to life an event which has been buried in the history books. Mayo tells her story from a variety of viewpoints, alternating between the parents of Agustin, Agustin’s aunt Pepa, Agustin himself, Maximilian and Carlota, political heads of state, and those who surrounded the families as nannies, butlers, and cooks. It is a complex cast of characters.
Mayo’s writing is detailed and obviously well-researched. Her sense of place and history are strengths of the novels, with detailed descriptions of setting including the clothes and food from that time period. Mayo quickly embroils her reader in the politics of the time, including the internal workings of the royal family as well as international governments. Most of the characters are real persons of history, but their interactions are largely imagined. Mayo deftly reveals the subtle interplay which made up royal intrigue in the mid to late 1800s.
The complexity of the novel and number of characters (with foreign names) confused me at times. I think it might have been helpful for Mayo to include a “cheat sheet” of dates and events, along with characters and their relationship to each other, especially for readers like myself who do not have in-depth knowledge of history during the mid-nineteenth century. Although Mayo’s writing cannot be faulted, I found myself drifting at times in a sea of details that were difficult to sort through. **EDITED TO ADD – Thank you for Ms. Mayo for providing a terrific reference to all characters in this book here.
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is impeccably researched and beautifully rendered. Those readers who love complex historical novels and who want to learn more about this time period in Mexican history will enjoy Mayo’s work.
Read more reviews of this book from May 5 – 15, 2009
(photo credit: Teresa Castracane)
About the author:
C.M. Mayo has been living in and writing about Mexico for many years. Her books include the widely-lauded travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, and Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award. An avid translator of contemporary Mexican literature, Mayo is founding editor of Tameme Chapbooks ~ Cuadernos, and has also edited the anthology Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, a portrait of Mexico in the fiction and literary prose of 24 Mexican writers. She conducted extensive original research to write this novel, her debut. Mayo divides her time between Washington D.C. and Mexico City.