This National Book Award Winner is historical fiction that takes place mostly in Paraguay, in the 1860's. The story mainly follows Ella Lynch, the young, beautiful Irish woman who comes home with the president's son after his trip to Europe. It is difficult to say whether or not Ella and Franco actually love each other, but they do stay together, though never marry, throughout the fifteen years that Ella is in Paraguay. During those fifteen years Ella gives birth to seven children, five of which live to be teenagers. Franco's father dies, giving him the opportunity to take control of the country and embroil it in a seemingly senseless war against the surrounding countries. Franco becomes a dictator, forcing his people to give up everything for his pointless war, becoming more and more paranoid, arresting and killing people for no reason. Ella continues to support him, more because she doesn't know what else to do, than because she actually believes in the cause. She considers leaving many times, but always stays, until the war has destroyed the entire country, killing almost all the men, including Franco himself.
I really enjoyed reading this book, although it wasn't necessarily due to the story. The book is written in a very interesting way - we are given brief glimpses of parts of the characters' lives, usually in short sections that are only a handful of paragraphs or less. This makes the story feel like it is moving very quickly. Tuck does not just focus on Ella and Franco, either, but gives us pictures of many of the other characters, major and minor, and leaves it up to the reader to make a whole story out of it. Her choices of what to show about each character are very deliberate - some of the characterizations seem rather shallow at first, but get deeper as we get more glimpses of them. This is one of those books that is more interesting to read for the way it is written, rather than for the story itself.
About the story - it is about real events, Ella and Franco did exist, as did many of the other characters in the book. I always find it fascinating to learn about history in this way, and also to learn about what came from history and what came from the mind of the author. In this case, events of the war are not particularly well documented, and many of the minor events were never documented. But the book is obviously well researched, and I think that Tuck does an excellent job of describing Paraguay during the 19th century. In the Author's Note she quotes a friend who says, "Nouns always trump adjectives, and in the phrase 'historical fiction' it is important to remember which of the two words is which."