History knows them as King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Elizabeth of Austria, icons of the late nineteenth century who died young and left behind magnificent portraits and palaces. But to each other they were Ludwig and Sisi, cousins who shared a passion for beauty and a stubborn refusal to submit to the roles imposed upon them. Ludwig, simultaneously spoiled and punished for his softness and "unmanly" interests, falls hard for the operas of Richard Wagner and neglects his state duties in the pursuit of art. Sisi, married at the age of sixteen to her beloved Franzl, bristles at the restrictions of her elevated position, the value placed on her beauty, and the simultaneous expectation that she ravage her body again and again in childbirth. Both absurdly vain, both traumatized by the demands of their roles, Sisi and Ludwig struggle against the ideals they are expected to embody, and resist through extravagance, petulance, performance, and frivolity.
Riveting and effervescent ... Empty Theatre, its titular metaphor speaking to the isolation behind the pomp, is called a novel, reads like a fairy tale, but is at its heart a biography ... Modern and mythic, Empty Theatre captures the outrageous taste of an era while measuring the steep costs of our dream worlds.
Throughout the book, she seems to waver: Is she writing a tragicomic confection, à la Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, or something trickier—a biographical novel virtually devoid of interiority, narrated by the panoramic voice of Fate? ... The approach Jemc settles on is a middle path between satire and family drama, although it’s hard to satirize figures who were, from birth, already caricatures of cloistered, bored, wanton nobility. Symbolism becomes overripe ... Occasional anachronisms—small and large—deflate the pomp of Jemc’s imagined world ... The history in Empty Theatre isn’t so much revisionist as retrofitted. It’s a narrative strategy that falters only near the end ... The tone sterilizes some of the bombast and madness of the preceding four hundred–plus pages, squeezing Ludwig’s singularity into a familiar, four-cornered emotion like loneliness. Here, perhaps, is what fiction offers that conventional biography doesn’t: a nugget of moralizing psychology in lieu of a denouement. Still, as a story of royals behaving badly and bemoaning their privilege, Empty Theatre has impeccable timing. Such stories have never gone out of fashion. They even used to be interesting.
Immediately enthralling ... A lengthy book by most measures, Jemc’s propulsive pacing, evocative concision, and the episodic structure make for quick reading. But the rapturous recounting of these fated characters’ lives will buzz for some time in readers’ minds.