A love match alters the course of the Habsburg dynasty in Pataki’s second novel (The Traitor's Wife, 2014).
In 1853, Elisabeth, known as “Sisi,” daughter of a Bavarian duke, accompanies her mother and older sister, Helene, to Vienna. The sisters’ redoubtable aunt, Archduchess Sophie, has arranged Helene’s betrothal to her son, Emperor Franz Joseph, who reigns over Austria, Germany, Hungary and most of central Europe. To Sophie’s alarm, Franz prefers the pretty, vivacious and athletic 15-year old Sisi to the shy, homely and studious Helene. After a gift-strewn engagement and lavish royal wedding, Sisi adjusts to the realities of wedded bliss among the monarchy: She has no privacy—every intimate detail’s observed and remarked upon by court spies—and a mother-in-law who's not about to brook any rivals for her son’s affection. When Sisi gives birth to two daughters, Sophie and Gisela, the archduchess complains of the lack of a male heir but happily appropriates the princesses, barring Sisi from any involvement in their upbringing. (The same will happen with Sisi’s ill-fated son, Prince Rudolf). Franz is preoccupied with affairs of state, dealing with rebellious upstarts like Hungary, Italy and Prussia, vassal nations eager to throw off the Habsburg yoke. Sisi is instrumental in healing the rift with Hungary, in part because this wildly popular empress has a special affection for the Hungarian people and landscape. On her first visit, she's captivated by the former rebel leader, dark, handsome Count Andrássy. However, young Sophie succumbs to a fever while in Budapest, feeding the archduchess’s propaganda campaign against Sisi’s maternal suitability. On her return to stultifying court life, Sisi is felled by depression but finally musters the will to stage a rebellion of her own. The plot doesn't stray far from the conventions of novels about royalty, exposing all the unsurprising human disappointments lurking behind the gilded façade.
Still, Pataki deserves kudos for choosing her subject matter well—Sisi’s life is ideal fictional fodder.