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.
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.
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.