The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo
Although I generally don’t like to simply give a publisher’s summary, I think there is too much going on in this book for me to write my own – you’d all stop reading before I actually got to what I thought about the book (trust me, I tried explaining it to my husband a few days ago and completely confused him):
“The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is a sweeping historical novel of Mexico during the short, tragic, at times surreal, reign of Emperor Maximilian and his court. Even as the American Civil War raged north of the border, a clique of Mexican conservative exiles and clergy convinced Louis Napoleon to invade Mexico and install the Archduke of Austria, Maximilian von Habsburg, as Emperor. A year later, the childless Maximilian took custody of the two year old, half-American, Prince Agustín de Iturbide y Green, making the toddler the Heir Presumptive. Maximilian’s reluctance to return the child to his distraught parents, even as his empire began to fall, and the Empress Carlota descended into madness, ignited an international scandal. This lush, grand read is based on the true story and illuminates both the cultural roots of Mexico and the political development of the Americas.”
I was super excited when I first heard about this book, because Mexican history is an area where I am shamefully weak. I realized in college my disgraceful lack of knowledge about Central and South American history and worked somewhat to mitigate that – I took about 1/4 of my courses for my history major on Central and/or South American history. However, since Mexico is NORTH America, I didn’t really learn anything about it. In my (possible?) defense, though, I don’t know much about Canadian history either, so I’m not just singling out Mexico.
In any case, I was thrilled to read about Mexican history, particularly such a dramatic period in Mexican history, about which I had never heard. I knew the French conquered Mexico in the 19th century, but I had no idea that they installed a Hapsburg as emperor and even less of a clue that Maximillian declared a half-Mexican, half-American toddler, grandson of a former Emperor of Mexico, as his heir.
“The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire” had a lot going for it: a fascinating history and and an author who is a skilled writer. However, in this case at least, I felt that Mayo’s storytelling skills were not on par with her lovely writing skills. My biggest complaint is probably that far too many characters were given narration privileges, including characters who had only a passing role in the book, such as Agustin’s first nanny during his time with Maximillian. This reliance on SO many characters really fractured the story for me, making it difficult for me to relate to any of them in any way and thus keeping me from maintaining a steady interest in the book. It also seemed to me that this multi-character approach kept the characters from being particularly well-developed. For example, I really did not understand why Agustin’s mother Alicia was happy to let him go, then suddenly wanted him back. I know what other characters surmised about it and what she stated to others, but I couldn’t tell if what she said was true to her motivation or simply what she was telling people in her quest to retrieve her son.
I had a really difficult time staying with this book. At just over 400 pages, it took me 8 days to finish, largely because I started 5 other books (and finished 4 of them) while I was reading because “The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire” simply couldn’t keep my attention for 100+ pages a day. Personally I think I would have preferred this book as nonfiction. It would have been more successful in fiction, in my opinion, if it was either half as long (with MUCH less complexity) or twice as long if Mayo wanted to fit everything she learned about this time period into the book in a less crunched fashion.
Although this really wasn’t a page turner, I don’t regret reading it because of what I learned. If you are very interested in this topic, I would definitely consider picking this book up. If not, it probably isn’t for you. Mayo does have some lovely descriptions and lyrical writing, though, so I would definitely at least consider reading any future books, I just think her storytelling style needs a bit of work.