This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Simon and Schuster
Released on February 17, 2015
This was a case of deep curiosity about a captivating historical figure that I’ve only vaguely caught glimpses of up until now. Upon seeing a new to me author had tackled the story of Empress Elisabeth ‘Sisi’ of the Austrian Empire, I decided that I wanted to try a new author and learn more about Sisi. As the author pointed out, Sisi’s real life was the stuff of fiction in many ways. The author impressed me with her ability to tell a compelling story that relied heavily on fact, but in such a way that Sisi and the characters surrounding her were brought to life in living color- weaknesses, hopes, flaws and triumphs.
The story begins with Sisi’s life as a girl at home with her parents and siblings then going with her older sister and mother when her aunt has sent for Helene to be presented as the bride for their cousin Emperor Franz Joseph of the Holy Roman Empire. It is there that Sisi innocently falls in love and frustrates the plans and hopes of many when a vivacious beauty of fifteen captivates the heart of an Emperor. All that follows tells the story of a young woman who is caught up in a life that she can barely understand let alone handle. While her husband wields power that controls the fate of millions, Sisi fights private battles to gain even a piece of his attention, to thwart her powerful mother in law, and to be valued for herself. Her life is not idyllic, but she learns through all she encounters and gains her own moments of triumph and power as the favorite of the common people and the person most influential in protecting the unity of Austria and Hungry.
I was engaged in the story from the beginning. It starts out like the stuff of fairy tales, but unlike the ending of a fairy tale, the wedding to her emperor is just the beginning for Sisi. I liked the honesty in the storytelling. It is all from Sisi’s point of view, but though I felt sympathetic toward Sisi, I was still able to see where she played a role in how things turned out in the estrangement from her husband and children. She experienced love, loss, disillusionment and the beginnings of love again. It was the Victorian era and a person with Sisi’s nature found it hard to conform to the norms of duty and rigid adherence to norms. Austria’s court was the most formal and grand in Europe and she came from a small backwater German duchy with few limitations and rules placed on her. Her husband was her opposite and so I found it so interesting how they got on and I liked how the possibility that Count Andrassy presented was handled. I was grateful that the author spotlighted Sisi’s life without seeming to miss the pivotal moments.
Sisi’s life is pretty romantic, but she also lived in changing times. She herself mostly focused on her own personal sphere, but the book doesn’t leave out what is going on around her. These are the waning years of the great empire of the Hapsburgs that stretched across most of Europe and is now being whittled down as countries and peoples seek autonomy, as new alliances are made and as the unification of Germany spells World War on the horizon. It is also a time of great poetry and music which are highlighted by Goethe, Strauss, Liszt and other artists. I thought it was interesting how the voices that influenced Franz Joseph in politics and world affairs were given voice too. So not just the story of a woman, but of a time in the past.
The set up was an interesting choice. Each chapter began with a segment from later in Sisi’s life leading up to her coronation day as Queen of Hungary. I was also taken with the way quotes from Goethe’s poetry streamed through her life and tied her story together.
My only real niggle was that I felt the book ended abruptly. It was a high point of her life to be sure, but only the mid-way point too. I hope the author plans another installment which she hinted is a strong possibility. There was also the inclusion of an enlightening Q&A section and detailing of sources used.
All in all, this was a superb read and I would recommend it for Historical Fiction lovers of Central Europe leading up to WWI as well as Historical Romance fans who want something a bit more authentic, but still a fascinating if doomed romance.
My thanks to Net Galley for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.