La Belle Creole: The Cuban Countess who Captivated Havana, Madrid and Paris by Alina Garcia-Lapuerta: A Book Review

La Belle Creole: The Cuban Countess who Captivated Havana, Madrid and Paris
Author: Alina Garcia-Lapuerta
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, History
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Release Date: September 1, 2014
Pages: 320
Source:  Netgalley/publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: The adventurous woman nicknamed La Belle Creole is brought to life in this book through the full use of her memoirs, contemporary accounts, and her intimate letters. The fascinating Maria de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, also known as Mercedes, and later the Comtesse Merlin, was a Cuban-born aristocrat who was years ahead of her time as a writer, a socialite, a salon host, and a participant in the Cuban slavery debate. Raised in Cuba and shipped off to live with her socialite mother in Spain at the age of 13, Mercedes triumphed over the political chaos that blanketed Europe in the Napoleonic days, by charming aristocrats from all sides with her exotic beauty and singing voice. She married General Merlin in Napoleon’s army and discussed painting with Francisco de Goya. In Paris she hosted the city’s premier musical salon where Liszt, Rossini, and great divas of the day performed for Rothschilds, Balzac, and royalty. Celebrated as one of the greatest amateur sopranos of her day, Mercedes also achieved fame as a writer. Her memoirs and travel writings introduced European audiences to 19th-century Cuban society and contributed to the debate over slavery. Mercedes has recently been rediscovered as Cuba’s earliest female author and one who deserves a place in the canon of Latin American literature.

    My Review: Before La Belle Creole, I had never heard of Mercedes, the Countess of Merlin. However, I can see why because La Belle Creole is the first biography of Mercedes to be in English. After reading this novel, I was surprised why she hadn’t been a popular subject to English and American historians. Mercedes is a fascinating character. She was the daughter of a Cuban elite, and became a fashionable hostess of salons in Paris, entertaining celebrities such as Balzac, Rossini, and royalty in her day. She also became a successful writer, the most famous being her memoirs about Cuba. Mercedes was an influential woman who helped romanticize  the vision of Cuba.

    Mercedes was born in Cuba. She had a spirited childhood. It is because, when she was born her parents placed her in the care of her mother’s relative so they could go to Europe. What I found interesting about this was that she doesn’t see her father until she is eight years old, and her mother until she goes to Spain. One funny story was that when her father placed her in a convent to be educated, and maybe be a nun, is that later on, she managed to escape and go back home to her beloved relative. Eventually, she goes to Spain and later on marries a French military officer in Napoleon’s army.

    The book is broken into three parts, Cuba, Spain, and France. Each of these countries is where Mercedes lived, but what she considers her true home is Cuba. Cuba is where her heart lies. It is because of her memories of Cuba that enables her to become a successful author. The author of La Belle Creole paints a gorgeous portrait of Cuba, Spain, and France in the 19th century. The reader feels like they are walking alongside Mercedes’s journey as she grows from a spirited, somewhat disobedient child to a successful woman who is prone to emotions. I also found Mercedes’s and her husband’s connections to the Bonapartes’ interesting, and it is because of them that she is forced to go to France.

     Overall, Garcia-Lapuerta’s biography shows a woman who makes the best out of her situations. She is portrayed as a warm-hearted and generous woman. This biography proves that Mercedes is an intriguing Cuban historical figure. I recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in the Napoleonic Wars, Cuban history, travel, and anyone interested in the arts in the Romanticized period. This novel is a great introduction to Mercedes, the Countess of Merlin, and her era.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is the author's official book trailer of her novel La Belle Creole:


  1. Like you, Lauralee, I had never heard of Mercedes; however, from what you have written in your review, she comes across as an extremely interesting person. Just the fact that she was a contemporary of Goya and Liszt and that her husband served in the Napoleonic Wars gives her life an appealing and colourful edge. I have added the book to my list of books to read., Thank you for a very informative review.

  2. Thank you very much Diane. She is an interesting person.

  3. New subject for me as well. Has to be an interesting story with her varied history.

  4. Thank you. It is a very colorful story. It is filled with excitement and intrigue. Plus, the pictures in the book are very beautiful.

  5. Fascinating! I'll have to get this to read (someday) -- love the era and I love passionate, dramatic, standout women forgotten by history!

  6. Thanks, I too love passionate, dramatic and standout women forgotten by history. That is one of the reasons why I created this blog!

  7. Mercedes de Santa Cruz is one of my collateral ancestors. She was the daughter of a Spanish count (he held two count titles: Conde de San Juan de Jaruco and Conde de Santa Cruz y Mopox). Her father was born in Cuba (as was she), which at that time was part of Spain. Her family was very well-connected to many of the elite and founding families of Cuba.

    I have not read her book, but will be purchasing it and reading it with great interest. I want to clarify that she was not a countess in her own right. Although Napoleon verbally pronounced her husband a count, it appears that he never completed the formality of completing the necessary documents to have the title formally bestowed upon her husband. There was much controversy about this issue. It's worthy of note that no such document has ever been found in the historical archives of France that deal with such matters. Thus, technically, since her husband was not a count, she could not be called a countess; therefore, although people referred to them as the Counts of Merlin, they were not entitled to use the title.

    Happy readings.

  8. Ladies,

    Since you seem interested in history and in women of substance, you might be interested to know that the current Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, Maria Teresa de Nassau (nee Mestre y Batista Falla), born in Cuba, is also related to Mercedes, either through her O'Farril or Montalvo family lines or both. Maria Teresa's ancestors include Spanish counts and marquises.

    It is so lovely, most especially in this day and age of a total lack of grace and graciousness, to be able to live, at least vicariously through Mercedes' writings, what life was back in her time and in her social circles.

    It would be great if we could do an online book club to read this book. :) Count me in if such a "project" develops. :)


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