The City of Palaces
In 1897 in Ciudad de México, lovingly called the City of Palaces on account of its numerous Spanish colonial edifices, Condesa Alicia Gavilán asks Doctor Miguel Sarmiento’s assistance at a prison. A spinster, Alicia is there on a charitable mission to see a destitute woman who is expecting. The young bachelor doctor, having recently returned from Europe, is there seeking the release of his father, who was imprisoned for publishing anti-government sentiments. Alicia is greatly impressed by Miguel’s “pure Spanish stock” looks and also by his kindness.
While it may not be love at first sight, as Alicia wears a veil to hide her smallpox scars, Miguel cannot get the lady dressed in “shimmering silk of midnight blue” out of his mind. He longs to see her again without raising a scandal. Alicia herself provides the opportunity by inviting him to a church for the baptism of the child he’d helped deliver at the prison. Although Alicia and Miguel are attracted to each other, they have to resolve some major differences in their outlook on life; she is a devout Catholic and he an atheist. These deviations were likely the result of certain childhood mishaps.
Acclaimed crime novelist Michael Nava has penned this remarkable historical novel, the first of a quartet, covering the years prior to the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. It is told through a love story and includes both fictional and real people. The introduction of a gay character, estranged as a “sodomite” by that era’s society, and the portrayal of his mental state are masterfully handled. While the plot is linear and driven by historical events, the strong evocative writing keeps us reading on. The detailed descriptions of life in the streets, behind the flowering vine covered palatial walls, and also in the hovels are a pleasure to read.