Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review: Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

In the historical epilogue to this lush novel author Sarah Dunant says
"More than many in history, the Borgias have suffered from an excess of bad press. While their behavior--personal and political--was often brutal and corrupt, they lived in brutal and corrupt times; and the thirst for diplomatic gossip and scandal, along with undoubted prejudice against their Spanish nationality, played its part in embellishing what was already a colorful story. Once the slander was abroad, much of it was incorporated into the historical record without being challenged. Spin, it seems, was a political art long before the modern word was introduced.
Subtitled, The Borgias, A Novel, this book is part of my reading list for consideration for the Maine Readers Choice Award.  It certainly is a worthy entry into the ring. While I had heard of the Borgias and their corruption over the years, I don't think I'd ever read anything that presented the story of this infamous family in such detail.  Certainly authors have leeway when writing fiction, and Dunant makes no claim to have us see this as a biography.  She has steeped herself in the history of the era, becoming as familiar as possible with source material, both fictional and archival.  Her previous books, such as Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, and Sacred Hearts, have shown her mastery of the language, the customs, the politics and the scenery of the era but with fictional characters.  In this one, she tackles historical characters, treading carefully among the information available to present us with a plausible rendition of this well-known and oft-villified family.

Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, ascends the throne of Peter after some intense backstage maneuvering.  He promptly makes his illegitimate son Cesare a cardinal at the age of 19, and begins marrying off his other children to various royal partners to form alliances to bolster his political ambitions.  This is a time when Italy was still not a unified country, existing instead as series of city-states, when the Holy Roman Empire was gradually disintegrating, when Spain's power was on the rise.  A Spaniard by birth, Alexander had to tread carefully through the politics of Italy, using the power of his office, as well as his love for his family to enhance his power, his wealth, and his ego.

His son Cesare, is a power hungry young man, well loved by all the ladies, unscrupulous in his relations with both church and state.  The world has been fed stories about Cesare's relationship with his sister Lucrezia, the Pope's only and very beloved daughter.  Dunant treats this relationship carefully, never allowing the undocumented rumors to overtake other possibilities.  Certainly the two were close, but here they are portrayed as being very politically astute siblings who are under the tight rein of their father the Pope. While they may have been pawns and playthings, the author is careful to also let us see the power these women held in the male dominated arena.

Dunant gives us a richly drawn portrait of the Pope, his off-spring, his enemies, his mistresses and relations, his offspring, his warts, his dealings with foreign countries, all the while showing us possibilities of humanity not often attributed to this family.  In addition, the customs, the fashions, and the history of the period are intricately described, taking the reader back to a time of rich but vile corruption, political perfidy, and horrifying treachery.

Historical fiction doesn't get much better than this. This is definitely Dunant's best work.  I read somewhere that there may be a sequel in the offing.  Let's hope so.  There's much more to this story that deserves a well-researched, objective, and humane look.

I also sampled a significant part of this one in audio.  Narrator Edoardo Ballerini does a stellar job of giving us the characters in different voices, accents, and attitudes.  The print copy includes an excellent family tree and map of the different political entities of the era, a definite plus for those of us needing a history refresher.
My thanks to Random House for making this copy available for review.

Title: Blood and Beauty:The Borgias, A Novel
Author: Sarah Dunant
Publisher: Random House (2013), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 528 pages Genre: Historical fiction
Subject: The Borgia Family
Setting: Italy at the turn of the 15th century
Source: review copy from the publisher

1 comment:

  1. An author I like to re-read for the wealth of historical detail she incorporates into her stories. This is a new one for me.


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