Friday, July 05, 2013

Review of Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant has written three acclaimed novels of Renaissance Italy in which she consciously narrowed her focus to the long-concealed stories of ordinary women on the margins rather than following what she termed the “historical celebrity version of life.” Now, in a noteworthy switch, we’re presented with Blood & Beauty, which centers on perhaps the most grasping and notorious celebrities of the era. The Borgia name instantly evokes images of glorious wealth and even more glorious power, corruption, poison, and incest.

So we might approach this current book believing it to be a significant departure. In addition to climbing on a new bandwagon by fictionalizing famous real-life leaders, her canvas has broadened. It encompasses the names many readers know well, first and foremost the ruthlessly ambitious Spanish-born Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), patriarch not only to his beloved illegitimate children but to Catholic believers worldwide.

But looking beyond them, it also presents an overarching portrait of the European political scene, including the changing alliances and deadly jockeying for supremacy among Rome, Naples, Milan, France, and Spain. This is the grand sweep of history, moving from the epic to the personal and back.

As Alexander uses his progeny as pawns to further his dynastic goals, they clash with the rulers of other Italian city-states and with one another. Their interactions are what push the plot forward. They are Juan, the eldest, his father’s loyal and self-important favorite; Cesare, charismatic, astute, callously ambitious, and overprotective of the beautiful sister he adores too much; Jofré, less complex and more childlike than his older siblings; and young Lucrezia, an ardently devout romantic who, over the ten-year span of the novel, becomes torn between her family’s orders and her own desires.

An unlikely cardinal, with his very worldly appetites, Cesare follows most closely in his father’s shoes. He has a lot of on-page time, with not much change to his personality. His presence gets somewhat wearing after a while, but the conclusion proves he has some surprises up his sleeve. There are no caricatures here, and he and his siblings’ personas reflect contemporary research much more than their infamous legends.

The novel uses a true omniscient viewpoint, a technique difficult to master – and for the most part it succeeds. Dunant’s perspective swoops from person to person and place to place, allowing insight into major as well as minor characters, from papal messenger Pedro Calderón to Ludovico Sforza, the Borgias’ Milanese foe, to the physician treating Cesare for the “French disease.” Every sentence has her sharp intelligence behind it and showcases her trademark dedication to detail.

There are times, though, when she draws far back from the main plotlines to speak to readers about the historical context. While these informative segments are narrated with flair and drama, they can be dense, and they also break up the reading experience. At these times, the story feels less a character-driven work than a history-driven one.

Emerging gradually from amidst the multiple story strands is a shining thread of feminine empowerment. This isn’t meant in the modern sense, but in the more subtle, quietly crafty, behind-the-scenes ways open to women of the era. Alexander and Cesare may hold the heaviest reins of power in Blood & Beauty, but its women are its moral center. Lucrezia’s transformation from unguarded innocent to shrewd game-player is the novel’s most compelling aspect. She, her practical and straight-talking mother Vannozza dei Catanei, and tough warrior-woman Caterina Sforza are brilliant characters whose survival instincts we can’t help but admire. Although each suffers significant losses, that doesn’t make their triumphs any less sweet.

As always, Dunant is perfectly at home in her setting. The atmosphere is decadent and dangerous in equal measure, with descriptions emphasizing the tightly knotted themes of art, politics, and faith. “Most men need to be overwhelmed in order to appreciate the divine. That is Rome’s job,” observes Alexander, in one of many classic lines, while gazing at the awe-inspiring splendor of the Sistine Chapel.

From different angles, all of the novels in her earlier trilogy (The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, and Sacred Hearts) spoke of the influential power of the family during the Italian Renaissance. This latest work is no different; the Borgias simply bring this motif unavoidably front and center. Complex, perceptive, and erudite, and with magnificent, strong women: this is what we’ve come to expect from Dunant. Those who reveled in all the details of this colorful historical era, too, will find even more of it to enjoy here. On the whole, maybe Blood & Beauty isn’t such a huge departure for her after all.

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Blood & Beauty: The Borgias will be published on July 16th by Random House in the US ($27.00, hb, 528pp).  It was published in the UK by Virago (£16.99, hb) on July 2nd.  Thanks to the publisher and Goodreads for an ARC of this book; this was a First Reads win.

15 comments:

  1. I love Sarah Dunant's books and I can't wait for this one! Thanks for the review!

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    1. I hope you enjoy it too. According to the note at the end, there'll be a sequel.

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  2. Terrific review, Sarah....

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    1. Thanks, Alana. This book looked to be right up your alley!

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  3. I loved her three books - this is definitely for me. I didn't know about this one so thank you for the update and review.

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    1. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts and how you feel it compares to her earlier historicals.

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  4. "Omniscient viewpoint" puts it perfectly, Sarah. I really enjoyed this novel, but to me it had the feel of a magnificent pageant passing before me - the experience was very wide-screen cinema, probably because it is attempting to encompass and condense such a wide sweep of an immensely complex period. I never quite felt personally involved though, or that I was seeing the Borgias' world through their own eyes in any truly intimate way.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that what I found in style from "Blood & Beauty" was less fiction and more wonderfully entertaining narrative history than I was expecting, based on Dunant's previous work - not necessarily a bad thing, just different :) And for anyone wanting an overview of the Borgias and their times I couldn't think of a better place to start. I believe that there is to be a sequel, too.

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    1. Hi Annis, that's an excellent way of expressing what the reading experience was like. I got most involved in the story when the focus was on Lucrezia, and since her presence became stronger as the novel continued, I enjoyed the later parts of the story the most.

      I hadn't expected the narrative history segments. It occurred to me while I was reading that should Dunant ever turn her hand to narrative nonfiction about the period, she would do very well. But there were times here when I needed to remind myself that I was reading a novel and not straight history. That said, the history sections were still superbly written and very entertaining.

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  5. I've been looking forward to reading this for a long time. I loved her three previous books.

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    1. Hi Vicki, please let me know what you think after you read it - I'd be curious! I don't know many people who've read it yet.

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  6. I've only read one of Dunant's previous novels, The Birth of Venus, and really enjoyed it. I like the fact that this book takes on the Borgia's. I've not read much about them, but what I have read I've been fascinated by so I'm looking forward to this one.

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    1. This one will be a good intro if you're relatively new to the period and characters. I've read about the Borgias before but still felt like I learned a lot!

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  7. I too have been looking forward to reading this one.

    Ms. Johnson, the NY Times reviewed it today too, but yours is the substantive review!

    Love, C.

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    1. Thank you, C! I just read the NYT review. Well-written, of course, but also plot-heavy (those less familiar with the story may want to avoid it). Also, the comparison to Mantel doesn't work for me, either in favor or against. Their styles are too different. Both write historicals of the literary sort, but Dunant isn't the first to take on the Borgias in fiction as Mantel was with Cromwell, and her focus is wide-angle history, as opposed to Mantel's very close, intimate approach to her lead character.

      But: "The star of this tale is Lucrezia Borgia, whose agonies ... stir compassion for a woman who possesses, in Dunant’s telling, more honor than her male relatives" - I agree 100% with that!

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  8. I didn`t know of the book till i read through your review. Thank you! I am glad i read it!

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