By the age of nineteen, already-divorced Irish beauty Ella Lynch is living in 1854 Paris, searching the social scene for a new romance. She finds her next paramour in an unlikely man: Francisco Solano Lopez, later known as Franco, the infamous dictator of Paraguay.
Stout, dark and hirsute, Franco is immediately attracted to the blonde-haired Ella and determined to win her affections, showering her with expensive gifts. His generosity pays off handsomely; when Franco leaves Paris to return to his native country, Ella is by his side, where she will remain for many years. Although they never marry, she bears him five sons, losing others in infancy, an extraordinarily fecund consort for the dictator.
Author Lily Tuck approaches the relationship with an eye to historical potential, filling in any lapses of accurate detail with vivid imagination, recreating a place and time long lost to memory. Unquestionably, Franco is a greatly flawed leader, a despot who virtually destroys the country's economy in an effort to establish Paraguay as a military power. His hubris costs the lives of many young men; torture and starvation bedevil the survivors, while Franco skirmishes desperately, his decimated troops dwindling before the advancing Brazilians.
Ella is most likely a product of the Paris she loves, where she resides in elegant surroundings, spending her days at parties and royal fetes. And for many of their years together, Franco offers her much of the same, their days together a romantic adventure; never does Ella recognize her lover as the emperor without any clothes. Ella lives in a rarefied world of privilege, with servants and plenty, her needs constantly attended, until Franco's war takes a turn for the worse. Even then she follows him to the countryside, finally forced to flee for her life.
Franco strips his people emotionally and economically; anything remotely useful is transformed into weaponry. Unto death, Franco refuses to be intimidated by the forces that pursue him through the jungle, disappearing into the brush, his family not far away. That Ella should survive with four of her sons and return to Paris is quite amazing.
The author recreates the brilliant and colorful Paraguayan landscape, a lush background for the unfolding drama of Franco's misspent ambitions. Ella is a self-absorbed, spoiled woman whose beauty allows her to rise above the poverty of ordinary life. She is incapable of recognizing her lover's arrogance and never questions his ability to rule. This is a fascinating perspective on a couple who are defined by their physical differences, yet oddly drawn together by their similarities. Tuck constructs a portrait of an exotic country, flourishing before it is gutted by one man's Napoleonic fantasies, his blonde, blue-eyed paramour proudly riding at his side.