Apparently the Borgias have become one of my reading obsessions and I cannot be more happy about it. It is a rare and lovely thing for a reader to become so invested in a historic period, or a figure or a city. This way you are guaranteed to have an unknown number of enjoyable books in store – a bit like with trilogies and tetralogies. Only you create a fandom on your own. The last time I had that was when I got hooked on Alexander the Great. Or maybe it was the Valois? Or the Civil War in America?
Blood and beauty summarize perfectly the storm with which the Borgias take over Rome and the Italian states in the 15th century. The title of the book carries the symbolism of both their uncompromising bloody rise to power and the lavish jewel-speckled spectacle their reign delivers. There is another layer of meaning, something Dunant establishes multiple times and through the points of view of Lucrezia, Cesare and Rodrigo – that their Borgia blood and their beauty set them apart and propel them forward.
Cesare and Lucrezia. The ever enticing mystery of exactly how far their love for each other went, positions their relationships in the center of any fiction about the family. Dunant chooses not to engage in assumption of incest based on historical sources that amount to not much more than gossip of envious contemporaries. There is a great intensity to every interaction Cesare and Lucrezia have in Blood and Beauty – from very tender love and care to bitter hatred and jealousy.
In the luscious clever prose of the book, their words and actions are deeply understandable and moving. They possess each other in a definitive way without the rumors having to be true and this was brilliantly described in both Blood and Beauty and In The Name of the Family.
Lucrezia for the win! I love every account where she is set apart from the maneuverings of her brother and father and put in a position that makes sense for the time and place she lived in. Painting her in the colors of a vile seductress and a professional poisoner just does not ring true to me. There are plenty of bloody score settlements that have not been proven to be Cesare’s doing but the likelihood is obvious. With Lucrezia – not so much. Apart from maybe being frivolous and naive, I don’t see how she could have been worse than Sancia, and sans the promiscuity.
Should you read it?
Blood and Beauty is a staple for everyone interested in the Borgias. This I discovered from the first moment I browsed for books about them. What kept me from reading it, though, was the general opinion it was too well-researched (what does that mean??) and the historical knowledge of the author comes in the way of her storytelling. BS, but I will get to that later.
So I read other Borgia-related novels. Some were good, others were great (Kate Quinn, I am looking at you). It was not until I read a review of the sequel to Blood and Beauty that I decided to give Sarah Dunnat a shot. The review was by none other than Diana Gabaldon and you can read it here. So, understandably, I ordered In The Name of the Family. I read In The Name of the Family. It was great. What’s more – it covered territory that the rest of my Borgia reading had not ventured – the fall of the family, the death of the pope, the decline of Cesare. Riveting stuff, and we also get a masterfully written Machiavelli.
Blood and Beauty is better. Amazingly well-researched – yes. Historical detail that sends you there smelling, sensing, hearing everything – hell, yes. Smooth turns of phrase that mean everything without saying much. Yes! And don’t get me started on the dialog. It is a perfect book. I have never imagined I will slap the ‘perfect’ stamp on any book, but here I am.
If you live historical fiction, just read this and be done with it. It’s very unlikely any of the rest will be good enough for you any time soon.