A charming biography of the Baroness de Pontalba (1795-1874), a wealthy 19th-century American expatriate. The baroness, born Micaela Almonester, was the daughter of a Spanish immigrant who had made it in the rough-and-tumble commercial world of New Orleans; at 15, she was the sole heir to a considerable fortune. As such, she attracted the attention of the Pontalbas, her aristocratic French cousins. Xavier Pontalba wrote to Micaela's mother to propose to her daughter on behalf of his son, CÃ¢lestin, and in 1811, CÃ¢lestin sailed to America to meet and court his young cousin. The two were married within a month, and Micaela returned with her new family to France, Once there, however, Micaela's troubles began. She was not entirely content with her life in the country estate of her in-laws. Vella (History/Tulane Univ.) writes, with the tongue-in-cheek style that contributes greatly to the book's charm, that ""sixteen-year-olds often look on compost with indifference."" But the bigger problem came when the dowry of the young heiress was finalized, and the greedy Pontalbas discovered that it was considerably less than they had hoped. Xavier Pontalba, who dominated his weak-willed son, began a war against his daughter-in-law that would last until he ended his own life, in 1834, after shooting Micaela four times at close range and nearly killing her. This dramatic climax was followed by divorce, an interest in construction that took hold of the baroness in her middle years (the home she built in Paris is now the US embassy), and an odd semi-reconciliation between Micaela and an ill CÃ¢lestin as she nursed him for the last 23 years of her own life. While the baroness's story might make a more satisfying novel than biography, Vella makes up for the occasional skimpiness of her material with an easy, elegant style.