The Ac­ci­den­tal Em­press by Al­li­son Pataki

The Star (St. Lucia) - - BOOK REVIEW - By Clau­dia Elei­box

The year 2016 was, for me, one of many dis­cov­er­ies. I ex­plored be­yond my lit­er­ary com­fort zone and pushed past my men­tal block that mod­ern and lo­cal books are not as good as the clas­sics. It was worth it be­cause I found many new trea­sures to add to my book­shelf. There were also some books that I loved way more than others. As part of our 2016 Year in Re­view I’m go­ing to share with you what was, in my opin­ion, the best read of that year: “The Ac­ci­den­tal Em­press”.

The nine­teenth cen­tury holds a pe­cu­liar magic for me, and any lit­er­a­ture set in it es­pe­cially cap­ti­vates me. It’s also mag­i­cal when a mod­ern writer can cap­ture the essence of a time pe­riod so en­tirely that the reader does not feel like a mere on-looker who can­not re­late to the is­sues of a great monar­chy. That is ex­actly what Pataki has achieved.

“The Ac­ci­den­tal Em­press” is writ­ten from the view-point of Em­press “Sisi” Elis­a­beth of Aus­tria. Ac­cord­ing to most his­tor­i­cal ac­counts about the em­press, she was the epit­ome of fash­ion and beauty, maybe even more than Marie-An­toinette. Her reg­i­mens took hours a day and com­prised many lo­tions, treat­ments and con­coc­tions. How­ever, Al­li­son Pataki’s bril­liant fic­tional bi­og­ra­phy of Sisi paints a full char­ac­ter whose wits matched her beauty.

Em­press Sisi was born and raised as a princess in Bavaria in a lack­adaisi­cal, wild man­ner com­pared to the chil­dren of the im­pe­rial court in Vi­enna. It is ar­ranged by Sisi’s mother and her Aunt So­phie, Arch­duchess of Aus­tria, for Sisi’s sis­ter and the em­peror to get mar­ried. Upon ar­rival at the im­pe­rial court Em­peror Franz Joseph bla­tantly falls in love with Sisi in­stead, and she re­cip­ro­cates. De­spite So­phie’s un­apolo­getic dis­ap­proval of Sisi be­cause of her lack of train­ing and her ig­no­rance, the em­peror gets his wish. At just six­teen years old Sisi mar­ries into the Hab­s­burg-Lor­raine Em­pire, with ut­ter re­gal un­pre­pared­ness, in the name of love, and with her deeply ro­man­tic, hope­ful and ad­ven­tur­ous dreams.

Sisi is de­lighted with the presents, at­ten­tion, and her new hus­band but she im­me­di­ately re­alises that her new life is not all that she hoped it would be. Although Franz pro­claims a life­long ded­i­ca­tion to her, he spends even the ear­li­est days of their mar­riage dis­tant in the po­lit­i­cal af­fairs of the Aus­trian Em­pire. Sisi also learns quickly that she and So­phie will never see eye-to-eye, and duty is more im­por­tant than af­fairs of hap­pi­ness. This en­cour­ages more re­bel­lion from Sisi and she con­stantly chal­lenges Franz about things that are no busi­ness of an em­press, her sole role be­ing to pro­duce an heir to the throne. Em­press Sisi does per­form her du­ties with her ex­treme fer­til­ity, while still fight­ing against the com­plex rules of the Vi­en­nese court and for the at­ten­tion of her beloved hus­band. Sisi also man­ages to have an in­flu­ence in the de­ci­sions lead­ing up to the Aus­tro-Prus­sian war and the du­al­ity of the Aus­tria-Hun­gary monar­chy. Af­ter suf­fer­ing from de­pres­sion, frus­tra­tion and con­stant heart­break, the em­press even­tu­ally finds hap­pi­ness and hope at the end of the novel, as well as be­com­ing Queen of Hun­gary, the one place where she feels at home.

The story in “The Ac­ci­den­tal Em­press” re­mains very close to the known facts of the life of Elis­a­beth and the peo­ple sur­round­ing her. How­ever, Pataki man­ages to per­son­ify the char­ac­ters and set­ting in such a way that the de­tails of scenery, cloth­ing, food and art ac­cen­tu­ate the events, weav­ing all the magic of nine­teenth cen­tury Aus­tria and Hun­gary. Also, ev­ery theme is em­pha­sised just enough to cre­ate the per­fect bal­ance and, although I did some read­ing on Em­press Elis­a­beth and Em­peror Franz be­fore­hand, I was still con­tin­u­ously cap­tured by the el­e­ment of sur­prise.

The in­tended au­di­ence for this novel spans widely. It is an easy yet in­tense read be­cause Sisi’s life is filled with melo­drama. It is also a lengthy book but one of the few ro­mance nov­els I would rec­om­mend to a young adult, and I am not a ro­mance fan! The his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion is rich, mak­ing it an even higher rec­om­men­da­tion in terms of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. Lastly, I would not ad­vise it as a bed­time read be­cause you would not want to put it down. Happy read­ing!

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