528 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-1400069293
Blood & Beauty: The Borgias is the story of the Borgia family from the election of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI in 1492 through to the announcement of Lucrezia Borgia’s third marriage in 1502; besides the Pope, the other main characters are his extremely ambitious son Cesare and his daughter Lucrezia. This was a tumultuous time in Italian history and the Borgias were strong and fascinating characters, with ruthless ambitions and enormous sexual appetites, and the novel is meticulously researched and detailed, a credit to the author, whose reputation as a historical novelist is well established.
However, it is hampered by the fact that though there is a great deal of scheming, murder, betrayal and (this being a novel about the Borgias after all) sex, there is not a lot of drama. I wanted to read about the Borgias because what little I do know is mostly sensationalist rumor and innuendo, especially surrounding Lucrezia. But the viewpoints portrayed in Dunant’s novel are always at a remove from the characters; while we are told what they were like, what they were thinking from one moment to the next, what their ambitions and passions were, etc., we don’t get a glimpse into what might have been their actual emotions and reactions to the blows dealt them. Particularly Lucrezia: though she is sympathetic, she is also nothing but a pawn, always playing third fiddle to her father and brother in the narrative. Of course, being a noblewoman in 15th-and-16th-Century Italy, she was expected to further her family’s ambitions by being married to the most viable candidate possible at the time, so her freedom was naturally curtailed. But this does not make up for Dunant’s inability to flesh out her character and make her more than a mere marionette.
While we can’t truly climb inside of the heads of people long dead, that is the art of the historical novelist: attempting to put the reader in the heads of characters in the book. The book is long, but only half the story, apparently, and doesn’t provide a real ending; rather, at the end we are told there will be another book to finish the story. So, in effect, stay tuned – and buy the next book. Yes, there is a lot of material to cover, but clearly the choice was to hold a magnifying glass over all the content to provide material for two books. Worthy material, to be fair, but still unsatisfying. I just hope I have the interest to wait for the second half of the story.