REVIEW: The City of Palaces by Michael Nava
Dear Michael Nava:
I’m a huge fan of the Henry Rios mysteries, and when I saw that the same author had an upcoming historical novel set in early 20thC Mexico, I knew I wanted to read it. Despite my eagerness, though, I started and set aside the book at least twice before my third, successful attempt. I’m not sure why it took me so long and so many tries, because the book is extremely accessible, the setting is terrific, and the characters are engrossing. It takes place before and during the Mexican Revolution, so there’s plot excitement aplenty. I think it has to do with what Kaetrin talked about in a review, that is, the alchemy between book and reader and needing to be in the right headspace. I had looked forward to this book so much that I was afraid, both of a substandard read and of not being in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. But the third time was the charm. This is a historical novel with romantic elements, with a love story at the center of it but not a traditional genre romance.
The novel opens when our protagonists meet in Belem Prison. Miguel Sarmiento is there to see his father, who is a political prisoner, while Alicia Gavilán is attending an “ordinary” prisoner who is about to give birth. The delivery becomes complicated and she asks Miguel, who is a doctor, to help. Alicia is a deeply religious, aristocratic spinster with a tragic secret in her past, while Miguel is an atheist who left Mexico for years in Europe after a traumatic event for which he feels enormous guilt. Alicia wears a veil to hide her scarred face, while Miguel is stunningly handsome. Despite their obvious differences, they are drawn to each other; each of them desperately needs a friend. But the social norms of the time don’t allow them to socialize as friends. Frustrated and unwilling to give up the strong connection he feels with Alicia, Miguel proposes marriage. Alicia is taken aback because she knows Miguel isn’t physically attracted to her and she doesn’t want a pity marriage, but she eventually agrees. So they tentatively embark on a real, but friends-based, marriage.
While this relationship is developing, Miguel takes a position in Mexico’s government doing medical work among the poor. The appointment is one of the many sinecures in the Porfirio Diaz government, but Miguel takes it seriously, and in addition to his official duties, he establishes a clinic in one of the poorest areas. This creates even more common ground with Alicia, who has dedicated herself to the welfare of the poor, many of whom are indigenous Indians. Miguel and Alicia work together in the clinic and their friendship deepens, as does the love and passion in their marriage.
This part of the story comprises the first third of the book, and it is more or less a traditional romantic story grounded in the politics and society of early 20thC Mexico. Nava does a wonderful job of making the reader feel the context, and I loved reading about a society which is influenced by European and US society and politics, but which is also entirely its own world. It reminded me how often even our “unusual” historicals feature white European or North American protagonists, so that we always have a foot in those cultures. In this novel we are completely on the inside.
The second third of the book opens about a decade later. We are introduced to Miguel and Alicia’s beautiful, artistic son, José, and we read the unfolding political developments through all three of their perspectives (as well as a few others on occasion). Through José the reader is shown a different side of Alicia’s hitherto terrifying mother, La Niña, and the weakening of the Diaz regime and the rise of challengers are portrayed from a variety of angles. We’re never really in doubt that Miguel and Alicia will be on the side of political and economic reform, but we also know that they are in a precarious position because of their professional and personal ties to those in power (Alicia and Carmen Diaz have known each other since childhood).
An important aspect of The City of Palaces, which sets it apart from most other historical novels with a love story at the center, is the role played by homosexual characters and in turn the issues that arise for them. Early in the book we meet Miguel’s cousin, Jorge Luis, who has to flee Mexico to avoid imprisonment (and probably worse) when he is found at a party with a group of gay men that includes the son of Diaz. He returns later in the story and his experiences exemplify the difficulties closeted aristocratic men faced in this era. Luis’s recounting of his European experiences include a brief discussion of Oscar Wilde and Edward Carpenter, with the former cast in a different light than he is portrayed in many UK-originating and set books (both fiction and nonfiction). I found this alternate take refreshing.
As we spend time with José, there are passages that make it clear that José is attracted to other boys and men to enough of an extent that Alicia becomes aware her son’s sexual attraction may not be directed exclusively (or at all) to women. Her reaction to this realization fits both her character and the time. In interviews about the book, the author has said that he based the character of José on the Mexican (closeted) actor Ramon Novarro, and readers who are familiar with Novarro will see echoes of his family’s name and history in this book. But it is by no means a biographical retelling.
The prose style is deliberate, slightly formal, and straightforward. It occasionally lapses into telling more than showing, but I think that is an occupational hazard of historical novels, especially when the history cannot be assumed to be known to the book’s audience.
All the characters are thoughtfully depicted and nuanced; there are no stock figures here that I could discern. The most compelling to me was Alicia. I’m neither Catholic nor a particularly religious person, whereas Alicia is highly devout in terms of observance and lives her life according to religious precepts as far as possible. But just as Miguel came to understand and respect the depths of her commitment, so did I. I can’t say I related to her, but there were times when I felt that her experiences were analogous to those described by people who are strong devotées of other religions. For example, there is a passage describing her experiences while at prayer during Lent which feels very similar (to me at least) to the way Hindus and Buddhists describe religion-based meditation:
Miguel had once asked her what she thought about when she prayed. “Nothing,” she told him. “But you spend so many hours at it, you must be thinking of something.” “No,” she insisted quietly. “I think of nothing.” He had looked at her with the same frowning expression with which he regarded obstinate patients.
But she had spoken the truth. When she prayed, as she had for the past few hours, her prayer eventually shed the stifling cloak of language and became, instead, a pulse of yearning, grief, wonder, and gratitude. It felt, physically, as if her entire body and all its complex systems had become concentrated in her heartbeat. Mentally, where thought would have been, there was, instead, an enveloping sensation of light. Rarely was it as powerful as the light of sun. Rather, it was like the flickering of the flame of a votive candle, which, for as long as it lasted, suffused her with feelings of peace and well-being unrelated to any person or object in the world. She did not leave her body, as she had read that the saints did when they prayed. To the contrary, it seemed to her that she more deeply entered her body, until she touched the center of all existence, including her own, sometimes for no more than a moment, sometimes for a little longer. It was a place as still and quiet as the whisper that Elijah had heard on the mountain of Horeb, after the storm and the earthquake and the fire, which he recognized as the voice of God.
Nava makes us believe in the deep connection between Alicia and Miguel, despite the gulf in their religious beliefs and their essentially different worldviews. They are both intelligent, honorable people who are caught in a time of massive social and political change, which may bring them down but will not change who they are. The other characters are very well depicted, especially La Niña who represents the old era and Luis who portrays a closeted man realistically (for the time) at peace with himself.
The City of Palaces is thoroughly Alicia and Miguel’s story, but it is not a genre romance because the end of the book serves as the beginning of another story, and there isn’t a permanent HEA for the main couple. I’ll put a spoiler under the cut:
Nevertheless, if you are the type of reader who seeks out unusual historicals and can accept a bittersweet, somewhat unresolved ending, I strongly recommend this novel. It is the first in a planned series that will follow Jose’s growth and maturation in future installments, but the dates for the later books have not been set. Grade: A-