Book Review: The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

Carlotta as a girl, by Hermann Fidel Winterhalter

The story has plenty to lure the reader: banditry, kidnapping, hubris, madness; but it is a fine attention to detail, on both the factual and visceral levels, that distinguishes C.M. Mayo’s first novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. Drawing from original research and a nuanced understanding of Mexico, Mayo relates one of the country’s more fantastic historical episodes: Maximilian, an idealistic Austrian prince who, with French backing, is crowned emperor of Mexico in 1864.

With his young wife, the Belgian princess Charlotte, Maximilian is thrust into a role that makes Obama’s 2008 task list seem mild: the unlucky Hapsburg assumes rule of a war-ravaged country plagued by guerrillas, plotting clerics, bandits, byzantine politics, and massive national debt, not to mention the French. In response, Maximilian dresses like a charro and focuses on redecorating his new residence, Chapultapec Castle.

An amateur entomologist and etiquette enthusiast, Maximilian is often portrayed as bumbling, naïve, and essentially kind, but Mayo is less forgiving. She focuses her novel on Maximilian’s forced adoption of his designated heir, Agustín de Iturbide y Green. Nicknamed Atin, the toddler is the son of Alice Green, a flitty American socialite who marries into a family from Mexico City’s fading upper crust. Dazzled by the pageantry of Maximilian’s court, Green initially agrees to let the childless Emperor raise her son, but immediately regrets the decision. As Green desperately tries to retrieve her son, Maximilian attempts to save Mexico through beautification projects and unrealistic decrees, Charlotte drifts closer to madness, and violence escalates in the mountains that hem the crumbling capitol. The subsequent story emphasizes the imperial couple’s remoteness: both from Green’s suffering and from the Mexican people.

Like the great master of historical fiction (that would be Gore Vidal), Mayo lards the dialog with the rumors and gossip of the era, and, in doing so, successfully recreates the stifled suspense of the city’s gloomy parlors and smoky kitchens. Through the characters’ fears and intrigues, the reader senses the volatile nature of Mexico’s social and political landscape.

Perceptive, and adept at imagining the peeves and wicked daydreams of people from all walks of life, Mayo frequently shifts points of view, introducing a large and diverse cast of characters, including Mexican kitchen maids, Austrian body guards, the French commander Bazaine, and Charlotte herself. Occasionally the transition from a character’s thoughts to more expository text seems awkward, and the sections told from the point-of- view of young Atin perpetrate the mild literary sin of being too believable: for several pages, the reader is trapped, claustrophobic, within the mind of a toddler. That said, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire does not suffer from the watery, half-realized tone so typical of first novels and should appeal to aficionados of historical fiction, as well as serious students of Mexican history*.

*Mayo keeps an excellent blog on the second empire, in which she generously shares some of the interesting historical documents she has turned up in her research of the era.

editor’s note: this review was originally published at our old website.

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