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Review: Blood & Beauty, by Sarah Dunant

Random House, 2013. 507 pp. $27

It’s hard to go wrong when you’ve got the cut-and-thrust of late fifteenth-century papal politics, with mind-boggling corruption, cruelty, and hypocrisy on broad display. Then too, you have the infamous Borgia family, the larger-than-life characters who enact this story. Finally, there’s the setting, so keenly described you can smell it, feel it on your skin, in horrifying glory.

But to me, what separates this novel from the pack, whether we’re talking about historical fiction in general or that of the Italian Renaissance, are depth and subtlety.

I particularly admire Dunant’s ability to show, rather than explain, her characters’ feelings. For instance, when a dispatch rider, eager to impress, delivers a message to Cesare Borgia and his scar-faced henchman, Dunant has him talk a blue streak, hesitate, and backtrack, as he gauges his listeners’ reactions. And when the henchman finds fault, she writes, “There is a second’s silence, until Cesare laughs and relief breaks out like sweat on the boy’s face.” It’s a joke, after all.

When I read this, I was in the scene with the rider, sharing his reaction. Moreover, I understood implicitly how the henchman resents the favor that Cesare bestows on the younger man, and how Borgia keeps them both on a leash by letting the henchman enjoy his superiority–for one second.

Another strength is how the central character, Lucrezia Borgia, changes through the course of the book. A pampered child married off as a girl, Lucrezia comes to wisdom through painful loss:

Every woman who walks through the world knows there are two roads: a wide triumphal route for the men, and a second mean little alley for women. Freedom is so much men’s due that even to draw attention to it is to make them angry.

Lucrezia’s life earns this sentiment. But I wish Dunant had given her flaws other than a naiveté she can’t possibly avoid, given her upbringing, and her desire to please, which, as she observes, is her lot as a woman. Unlike anyone else in her family, she’s kind, gentle, loyal, and thoughtful of others. Yes, she carries the burden of a terrible legend, which Dunant clearly wants to revise, but isn’t her heroine too good to be true? Vanozza dei Cataneis, mother to Cesare and Lucrezia, is more fully drawn that way, even as a minor character.

Cesare, on the other hand, has enough flaws to send the whole populace to confession. He’s utterly repellent, yet I can’t help being fascinated at his political gifts, willingness (and ability) to excel in many roles, and force of character. It’s ironic that in this feminist novel, he, who causes so much of his younger sister’s sorrows (and, therefore, her enlightenment), should upstage her.

Dunant mentions a possible sequel. Here’s hoping she writes it and gives Lucrezia more angles and edges.