Married to Emperor Franz Joseph, Elisabeth—fondly known as Sisi—captures the hearts of her people as their “fairy queen,” but beneath that dazzling persona lives a far more complex figure. In mid-nineteenth-century Vienna, the halls of the Hofburg Palace buzz not only with imperial waltzes and champagne but with temptations, rivals, and cutthroat intrigue. Feeling stifled by strict protocols and a turbulent marriage, Sisi grows restless. A free-spirited wanderer, she finds solace at her estate outside Budapest. There she rides her beloved horses and enjoys visits from the Hungarian statesman Count Andrássy, the man with whom she’s unwittingly fallen in love. But tragic news brings Sisi out of her fragile seclusion, forcing her to return to her capital and a world of gossip, envy, and sorrow where a dangerous fate lurks in the shadows.
Through love affairs and loss, dedication and defiance, Sisi struggles against conflicting desires: to keep her family together, or to flee amid the collapse of her suffocating marriage and the gathering tumult of the First World War. In an age of crumbling monarchies, Sisi fights to assert her right to the throne beside her husband, to win the love of her people and the world, and to save an empire. But in the end, can she save herself?
When Allison Pataki wrote The Accidental Empress – about the first part of Empress Elisabeth’s life – it was published by Howard, a Christian division of Simon & Schuster. This sequel has been put out by a different publisher, and I wondered if there would be any noticeable difference in the writing because of that. Given the details of Sisi’s life, it was always going to be a tricky subject: this was not going to be a novel with a happy ending.
The Austro-Hungarian Empress was a complex character. Thanks to Pataki’s writing, it’s possible for the reader to be sympathetic towards Sisi in one paragraph and feel complete indifference to her in the next. She delights and infuriates in equal measure. If one can be lonely in a crowded room, this was the Empress. There are times in the narrative, however, that the loneliness becomes an annoying full blown pity party and you want to berate the woman for her selfishness. Sisi traveled extensively in her life so the book takes us from Ireland to Greece. The descriptions are wonderful, although the description of her visit to Neuschwanstein will have you thinking twice about the famous fairytale castle in the Bavarian mountains. Meanwhile, a veritable who’s-who of royalty is paraded through the many pages – from Emperors to Shahs – along with their offspring and heirs apparent.
This is a book that marches through history toward an inevitable conclusion. Occasionally, there’s a sense of foreshadowing of the things to come, including the Great War and the resulting demise of the Habsburg Empire. We can only imagine what might have been had the relationship between Sisi and her son, Crown Prince Rudolph, been different. If Rudolph had lived, would war have been averted? There are also interludes containing the thoughts of Sisi’s assassin in the lead up to that fateful day in Geneva. I thought I could be stoic when the final moment came, but Pataki finished the book with a beautiful and emotional flourish that makes you believe that the troubled Empress was finally at rest.
Thank you to Random House for my complimentary electronic uncorrected proof of Sisi: Empress on Her Own, which I downloaded from NetGalley. No review was required.
Have you read Sisi: Empress on Her Own? Do you plan to read it? Let me know your thoughts.
Publisher: The Dial Press (an imprint of Random House Publishing Group)
Publication Date: 08 March 2016
Page Count: 464