Book Review: Empty Theatre

Book Review: Empty Theatre

At the start of Empty Theatre by Jac Jemc, you are given the fuzzy demise of two royal cousins in the very late 1800s. Then you quickly pull way back and, over several chapters, both the main characters are born and placed in their shared world of wealth, power, rules, restrictions, expectations, intermarriage, prestige, excess, intrigue, and any number of crazy relatives. The common people? They’re there somewhere in the background. I mean, princesses and empresses aren’t actually allowed to interact with anyone much or to leave the palace or anything. Still, this fictional retelling of history is a whole lotta intrigue without being very intriguing, at least for long bits. The book is just too lengthy and it recounts so many scenes in chronological order without making sense of the plot or story for us. Still, I was often taken by the writing style, the language, the characters, maybe even the playful, chaotic tone. I wanted to love it and sometimes I did. Sometimes I had a hard time picking it back up. Overall I enjoyed it.

The entire title of Jac Jemc’s Empty Theatre is actually Empty Theatre, or The Lives of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Sisi of Austria (Queen of Hungary), Cousins, in Their Pursuit of Connection and Beauty Despite the Expectations Placed on Them Because of the Exceptional Good Fortune of Their Status as Beloved National Figures, with Speculation into the Mysterious Nature of Their Deaths. That’s pretty much the synopsis for you; I don’t have any work to do here.

I read this book for one of my book clubs—the fanciest one. I had never heard of it or remembered seeing it before but it sounded amazing. And that cover? And I enjoy great historical fiction.

Present tense is not really my thing, which we have established over and over. That doesn’t mean I don’t love a book occasionally that uses present tense. However, I feel like an author has to justify present tense, and I don’t see how Empty Theatre needed it. Or even why it was chosen, artistically. Historical fiction begs for the past tense, and I felt whiplashed almost every time I put the book down and then picked it back up. My mind kept expecting past tense, no matter how many times I was dropped back into present tense. And I did put the book down many, many times. I began enthusiastically enough, but the story went on for a really long time (okay, too long) and was true to the history in a way that meant there was no real plot (until suddenly there was at the end); there weren’t questions we were waiting on the answer to, not any traditional development of the story. It led me to wonder why it was made into a novel, or to reframe that, why Jemc didn’t run with the fictionalized version and give us an arc, a plot, didn’t focus in on some of the many, many scenes that are included in order to make it cohesive and, well, dramatic.

What was it, then? Empty Theatre is a fact-deluge as well as a lore- and speculation-fest, chronological, beginning of life to end (for both characters). (Because it is chronological, we don’t see Leopold for awhile–don’t be fooled by Franz or whoever–Leopold will enter the story eventually.) But this doesn’t say it all. It’s also a fun, feisty, zoomed-in account with plenty of juicy bits, plenty of meat and also great prose that sometimes is excellent prose. The fictionalization allows the reader to meet the characters up close and personal, to really plop into the scene with details and dialogue, making these very real (and now embellished) stories more accessible. More fun, surely. If you’re a stickler for facts, your options are a) skip this book or b) read it and then look up the veracity of events and claims as you read or afterward. There is so much historical fiction or based-on-true-events stuff out there, you should be used to it by now.

The point, I think, was to explore the feelings, the psychology, the lived-in experiences of a couple of these eccentric royals from the European past (not going terribly far back here; we’re in the 1860s to 1898). Jemc chose two fascinating and over-the-top royals, a pair of cousins who ruled in neighboring territories (one senior to the other) in Eastern Europe near the end of the Habsburg dynasty… and for us readers, with the World Wars looming and the tension of a limited time left for royalty as royals (and monarchies) nearly everywhere. The book explores mental illness, sexuality, gender roles, and the pressures and expectations of being born into high positions. There is also the element of marriage and the powerlessness of women, or maybe it’s more the singularity of the purpose of royal women and the limitations to do anything outside of bearing the next heir. Like Queen Charlotte and The Great. We’ve been debunking the fantasy of marrying a prince for a while now.

Though there’s a certain amount of seeing through these characters, too. Sure, we get really into Prince Ludwig and Empress Sisi, but we are also disillusioned. They’re both deeply unfortunate in some ways and they’re both spoiled brats. There are many incidents of casual cruelty, from and toward our MCs. So much. Which leads us to the possible moral of this story: monarchy is a bad idea. The King and the Empress were ill equipped and tragically uninterested in their roles. Their family history of lunacy and their lack of freewill give us sympathy toward them, but I don’t think we can completely get away from just how amazing they also had it, especially compared to the majority of their subjects.

A few notes and warnings: it gets confusing with all the characters (some of whom drop out of the story for long stretches) and I got a little resentful that there wasn’t a family tree, list of characters, and maybe even a timeline printed in the book. And a time-appropriate map! But a reference for the characters is a must, so either make that list as you read or find some sort of resource online. (I couldn’t really find the map I was looking for.) I was an enormous fan of Sisi and her home gyms. I was not as fond of the monotony that happened largely in the middle parts of the book. I wanted to see a little more clearly why Jemc might have written this book. Why this story? Why these characters in history? Some of the books that my book club familiars recommended instead of—or in addition to—Empty Theatre were HHhH by Laurent Binet, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and The Windup Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Also, the streaming series The Great. I have seen that one and I was frequently reminded of it while reading. The Empress by Gigi Griffis is another series that is actually about Empress Sisi and her husband and is currently on Netflix.

Here are some food suggestions, foods that are featured in the book that you could make for dinner while reading it or make for your book club or post-reading. Perhaps some will appeal to you more than others.

  • Liver dumpling soup
  • Rotkraut (braised red cabbage)
  • Veal and wurst (sausage)
  • Vanillekipferl (Austrian vanilla crescent cookies)
  • Plum Pudding
  • Toast with Schnapps (I can’t recall… maybe she ate it for breakfast?)
  • Hot Chocolate

Lastly, here are a few fun vocabulary words, because there is a lot of vocabulary happening in this book:

  • chypre – a family of perfumes with citrus top notes
  • capercailzie – a large Eurasian grouse (a game bird with a plump body and feathered legs) that lives in pine forests
  • chamois – a species of goat-antelope; also a durable and comfortable fabric used largely for high end gloves made from the animal chamois. (Then later it became a term for a flannel-like cotton cloth.)

So yes, I liked reading Empty Theatre. Yes, I would recommend it for those who enjoy things like The Great and who have some tolerance for a meandering narrative or who at least will tolerate all sorts of things to get the rich-and-famous-people-of-history gossip. Or you like a study of the royals. Or are especially intrigued by the Victorian era but not necessarily in just England. It might take a second to get through it because you probably won’t be turning the pages late into the night, but it’s, well, unique. And there are some simply beautifully written passages and some riveting characters though their lives may get a bit tedious at turns.

“’Tell me, have either of you derived your greatest joys in life from doing what you’re told?’ She looks at her father” (p59).

“…but in Vienna I’d have to wear gloves every day, and I worried what it would do to me not to feel the world beneath my fingertips” (p163).

“Sisi wonders why his other palaces can’t be ‘poetic places of refuge,’ but she knows this brand of hope—that another place might hold the solution to one’s disquiet” (p242).

“That is always the way, isn’t it? Something is always dying off and something always growing unruly” (p262).

“Franzl knows that, if he were to ask Sisi what it was she wanted, she would not be able to answer. She knows only that none of these things is it” (p264).

“To know a truth is different than to speak it aloud” (p264).

“His heart chugs and halts …. He wonders if she will pick up on the code that he is locking into his words” (p311).

“’Once you have everything, you must continually dream up new things to want. And all the same, I am hounded day and night to sign papers and take meetings that don’t matter at all to me, and this is my fate until I die’” (p323).

“You are born into this life and you must find a way to tolerate it. Any option is an illusion” (p323).

“Had they been visiting regularly, the minute daily changes might have deceived them into believing they remained mostly the same” (p329).

“My body is my instrument. If the King wants to listen to a voice like mine, then he must face the form that produces such sound. This is what resonance looks like” (p330).

“Hornig has come to realize that humans override self-protection for a sense of closeness and attachment” (p346).