A big part of why I love historical fiction set in other countries is that they help me fill in gaps in my very America-centric United States education. These books invariably spur me to look up names and places and events that I don’t know so that I can get the full history that the novels allude to. So many novels have turned into cramming sessions on missed history. This is especially true of The City of Palaces, by Michael Nava. Even though my county shares an almost 2,000 mile border with Mexico, I know embarrassingly little about Mexican history. Nava’s novel dropped me into the end of dictator Porfirio Díaz‘ regime and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Nava made me feel like I was right there with the Sarmiento-Gavilán family as they lived through it.
The City of Palaces centers on two characters who meet for the first time in a prison, just a few years before the end of the nineteenth century. Miguel Sarmiento is there, facing his demons, to help deliver the child of a prisoner. Alicia Gavilán is there doing charitable work among the women. Even though Alicia wears a veil (to hide her smallpox scars), her determination and no-nonsense attitude make an impression on Miguel. Before long, Miguel and Alicia have struck up a friendship. Both characters are members of the Mexican elite, but feel like outsides. Miguel’s father was an enemy of Díaz and Miguel had to leave the country because of his own scandal. Alicia’s scars caused her to be left out of the aristocratic marriage market, while her own deep faith has led her to do more work among the poor than most of her circle consider seemly. It’s not love at first sight but Miguel and Alicia grow to admire and love each other over time.
After they marry and settle down in Alicia’s mother’s palace, Miguel and Alicia find themselves pushing against systemic corruption and racism to try and do a bit of good. In addition to what I learned about Díaz and Mexican politics at the beginning of the twentieth century, I also learned about the horrific treatment of the Yaqui people by the Mexican government. Alicia in particular gets deeply involved in an underground railroad to smuggle enslaved and orphaned Yaquis out of Mexico and into the United States, where they can regroup to fight for their ancestral homeland. Meanwhile, Miguel fights a Sisyphean battle against diseases like cholera and typhus as part of the public health department. His boss is very sympathetic to Miguel and very eager to help, but most of the government’s funds are tied up in President Díaz’ efforts to turn Mexico City into a city of palaces and monuments.
The City of Palaces is, for the most part, a slow burn of a novel. Things only start to happen quickly once the Revolution begins. Before the plot sped up, I was able to sink into the richly-described setting of the Gaviláns’ palace, the neighborhoods of Xochimilco and Milpa Alta, and other places the Sarmientos visit. (I really want to visit Mexico City now, to see all of the buildings and plazas I looked up on Wikipedia in real life.) Nava’s novel never feels like a textbook or a tourist guide. All of the research that must have gone into The City of Palaces is beautifully used to bring the history back to life.
The City of Palaces is a terrific read for anyone interested in the history of Mexico—especially for readers who want characters who try to make a difference instead of just getting caught up in big events.