Wednesday, October 8, 2014

La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris by Alina García-Lapuerta

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: July 8, 2014

Known for her beauty and angelic voice, Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, la Belle Créole, was a Cuban-born star of nineteenth-century Parisian society. She befriended aristocrats and artists alike, including Balzac, Baron de Rothschild, Rossini, and the opera diva La Malibran.A daughter of the creole aristocracy, Mercedes led a tumultuous life, leaving her native Havana as a teenager to join her mother in the heart of Madrid’s elite society. As Napoleon swept Spain into the Peninsular War, Mercedes’ family remained at the center of the storm, and her marriage to French general Christophe-Antoine Merlin tied her fortunes to France. Arriving in Paris in the aftermath of the French defeat, she re-created her life, ultimately hosting the city’s premier musical salon. Acknowledged as one of the greatest amateur sopranos of her day, she nurtured artistic careers and daringly paved the way for well-born singers to publicly perform in lavish philanthropic concerts. Beyond her musical renown, Mercedes achieved fame as a writer. Her memoirs and travel writings introduced European audiences to nineteenth-century Cuban society and contributed to the debate over slavery. Scholars still quote her descriptions of Havana life and recognize her as Cuba’s earliest female author. Mercedes epitomized an unusually modern life, straddling cultures and celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. Her memoirs, travel writings, and very personal correspondence serve as the basis for this first-ever English-language account of the passionate and adventuresome Belle Créole.

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I picked up Alina García-Lapuerta's La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris on a whim. Much like Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom and Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams, the title highlighted an individual I'd not heard of and boasted an intriguing premise, but unfortunately the reality didn't live up to my expectations. 

To be clear, Mercedes Santa Cru z y Montalvo is a very interesting and noteworthy woman. The daughter of a prominent Cuban family, she defied the convention of the rank and station to which she was born while making a name for herself on the world stage. 

My difficulty stems from García-Lapuerta's style and presentation. The author spends a great deal of time on Mercedes' family history, the political landscape of the day and the culture of the societies in which Mercedes lived. It's great material if you enjoy that sort of exposition, but not being familiar with Mercedes or her achievements, I struggled to appreciate the role these details played in shaping her legacy and often lost working my way through the text. 

I fully agree with Publishers Weekly in that the book "illuminates lesser-known aspects of 19th-century transatlantic culture," but I can't help feeling it would be a stronger publication if it were more direct in its delivery.

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Her highly personalized accounts offer a unique perspective far removed from the usual military or political histories and provide rich material for modern social historians. While her musical attainments may seem ephemeral as no technology existed to capture them, the surviving descriptions provide a glimpse of an extraordinary musical talent and confirm that her luminous soirees helped launch countless great artists. The nurturing of other musicians places Mercedes firmly in an unbroken chain of musical history.
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