The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch – Anne Enright
The novel opens in Paris, in the midst of the sexual embrace that makes Eliza Lynch the mistress of Francisco Solano López, the third dictator of Paraguay. She is nineteen years old but wise beyond her years-initiated into sex by a Mr. Bennett, a friend of her family’s, while still at school, she has had many lovers and even been married, to an abusive Frenchman named Quatrefages from whom she escaped in north Africa to return to Paris. She is currently a society paramour who maintains a respectable façade even while sleeping with a dressmaker in exchange for credit. López is a young comer in Paraguayan politics, the son of the current dictator, who is in Europe on a diplomatic tour and to recruit engineers and others to help on his plan to build the first railway in South America. He goes to Eliza Lynch for French lessons, but history has other plans for them. A few months later, Eliza realizes she is pregnant.
Eliza accompanies López on his tour of the continent and they are now aboard the Tacuarí, having made the Atlantic crossing and navigating the Rio Parana towards Asunción, Paraguay, López’s home. Hugely pregnant, Eliza swings in a hammock feeling simultaneously imperious (she drinks champagne, cooled by being dragged through the river’s water on a rope; she presides over card games which mimic the high society she has left behind and gets to know the English engineer and Scottish doctor her husband has hired) and helpless, completely out of her element in a tropical, buggy landscape.
But Eliza is a quick study-she befriends Miltón, her husband’s Guaraní Indian servant, who teaches her to starch her dresses with porridge to combat the humidity, as the locals do, and quickly begins to think about fixing up Francine, her maid, with one of the men her husband has recruited to assist in his nationalist ambitions. Eliza proves herself a formidable woman, with exactly the right combination of strength, will, resources, and the strategic ability to make allowances for the powerful that will prove her, over the course of López’s rule, his most powerful ally. When it becomes clear López-“my dear friend” as Eliza calls him-wants to sleep with Francine himself, Eliza sends the girl off to him, consolidating her own power even as she betrays herself. As they arrive in Asunción, she dresses in a lilac gown that is at the cutting edge of Paris fashion, astonishing the crowd at the pier with her poise, her beauty, her blonde, physical foreignness, even as she is going into labor.