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Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of Baroness de Pontalba

4.7 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0807129623
ISBN-10: 0807129623
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Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

A charming biography of the Baroness de Pontalba (17951874), a wealthy 19th-century American expatriate. The baroness, born Micaela Almonester, was the daughter of a Spanish immigrant who had made it in the rough-and-tumble commercial world of New Orleans; at 15, she was the sole heir to a considerable fortune. As such, she attracted the attention of the Pontalbas, her aristocratic French cousins. Xavier Pontalba wrote to Micaela's mother to propose to her daughter on behalf of his son, C‚lestin, and in 1811, C‚lestin sailed to America to meet and court his young cousin. The two were married within a month, and Micaela returned with her new family to France. Once there, however, Micaela's troubles began. She was not entirely content with her life in the country estate of her in-laws. Vella (History/Tulane Univ.) writes, with the tongue-in-cheek style that contributes greatly to the book's charm, that ``sixteen-year-olds often look on compost with indifference.'' But the bigger problem came when the dowry of the young heiress was finalized, and the greedy Pontalbas discovered that it was considerably less than they had hoped. Xavier Pontalba, who dominated his weak-willed son, began a war against his daughter-in-law that would last until he ended his own life, in 1834, after shooting Micaela four times at close range and nearly killing her. This dramatic climax was followed by divorce, an interest in construction that took hold of the baroness in her middle years (the home she built in Paris is now the US embassy), and an odd semi-reconciliation between Micaela and an ill C‚lestin as she nursed him for the last 23 years of her own life. While the baroness's story might make a more satisfying novel than biography, Vella makes up for the occasional skimpiness of her material with an easy, elegant style. (36 illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Christina Vella has done a spectacular job of excavating the historical record but, as she herself points out, "the documents of Micael's and Célestin's marriage are clumsy guides to a complicated relationship" because they leave "much to be imagined and presumed." We long for a novelist who could explore the intricate workings of motivation, who could trace the see-sawings of power and control, who could ask the tricky question of who the "author" of this family's story finally was. --The New York Times Book Review, <A HREF="/exec/obidos/Author=Goreau%2C%20Angeline/${0}">Angeline Goreau

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 440 pages
  • Publisher: LSU Press (January 23, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807129623
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807129623
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #611,000 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Too often history book are dry and historical fiction is not accurate. How refreshing it is, then, to find a book by a professional historian that reads like a novel and yet is meticulously researched and beautifully written. Intimate Enemies is a true story but the kind of story of which novels are made. It details the life, travails and (eventually) triumph of a remarkable woman, Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba. In tracing Micaela's troubled life from her birth in New Orleans, in 1795, to her death in Paris, in 1874, Christina Vella provides a rich historical mosaic of the times. One learns in detail about antebellum New Orleans in all its glory and squalor and about France in the first three quarters of the 19th century. We learn of inheritance laws, the treatment of dowries, and the rights of wives vis-a-vis husbands, in both France and Louisiana. And we see Micaela changing from a pliant, obediant wife to an astute woman, aware that her assets are being exploited by a money-grubbing husband and father-in-law. Much in the manner of Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, and Sheehan's A Bright, Shining Lie, Vella uses a single person to reflect the times, drawing the reader into a living, three-dimensional world. Indeed, one of the great virtues of this book is its corpus of notes, which provide the interested reader with additional subjects to explore. The author has even provided a list of New Orleans streets named for acquaintances of the Baroness! Micaela Almonester was an incredible woman, who survived poverty, illness, and attempted assassination by a father-in0law unable to bend her to his will. Vella has brought her to life in a way that makes the reader sorry to see the old woman die and the book end. It is almost too much to expect Vella to provide us with an encore but we may hope!
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Format: Hardcover
Growing up in New Orleans, I was always familiar with the name Pontalba and the row apartments flanking Jackson Square that bore the name. Pontalba, Almanester, de la Ronde, Miro, Pere Antoine: these were names that every student in New Orleans schools learn. Yet, now I feel as if I know each of them on a personal basis, as if I have actually met them. In the process, I have come to know the city of New Orleans in th 19th century, the same city which I have always known and loved in the 20th. Christina Vella brings to life people who have been dead and gone for over a hundred years. Only through the meticulous research that she has done can these ghosts be brought back to life. Vella has done a superb job in this endeavor. With her vivid descriptions of the city in mind, you can walk through the French Quarter today and literally see the muddy, murky streets of the previous century. You can see the ships on the river carrying the young bride and bridegroom to France. You can see the beloved cathedral as it looked back then. Read Intimate Enemies to learn about the people Vella is describing, but read it also to learn about the city which was their home, about the country that became their nation. Vella has done exactly what every historian strives to do: to bring the past to life in such a way that it is understood and therefore clearly explains why things are the way they are today.
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Format: Hardcover
This book has been recommended to me by a tour guide while I was paying New Orleans a short visit. I bought it together with Gwendolyn Midlo Hall's excellent "Africans in Louisiana", and, read one after another, starting with Hall, the books give a pretty cool picture of what New Orleans (and Louisiana, for the matter) were about during the 18th century. Although Gwendolyn Hall is by no means a bad writer (on the contrary), Christina Vella definitely is the more compelling read.
Her first few chapters rock, especially the ones about the old Almonester and his fights with the Cabildo, followed by the biography of the old Pontalba. Those are the best chapters of the entire book. Vella did a fantastic job with placing those characters in a broader historical setting. Beautifully written, she doesn't hesitate to give psychological explanations to those men's actions, and does so convincingly. Vella even allows herself to comment ironically on certain developments, or (dis)approve of the actions of her characters, which is pretty rare in modern historical scolarship. (Why?)
The scene then shifts from New Orleans to France, and the story becomes one of a superweird triangle relationship between Micael, Celestin, and Celestin's father, with a pretty dramatic ending. The broader historical perspective shifts accordingly, from the organization of a colonial society to a gender study of early 18th century France. What were the (im)possibilities of a unhappily married woman in this society? Micael, by her extraordinary personality, pushes the boundaries of the possible to the extreme.
The last few chapters of "Intimate enemies", where Christina Vella retraces the building activities of Micael in Paris and New Orleans, are the weakest.
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Format: Hardcover
Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba, by Christina Vella, is one of the best books that I have ever read. I took Professor Vella's class at Tulane University in the Spring of 2000. This book was the basis of the class. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in thorough documentation of facts about a dynamic woman and her family, as well as two great cities, New Orleans and Paris.
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