Blood and Beauty A Novel of the Borgias by Sarah Dunant is a book that I picked up on my own. I saw that it was about the Borgias and I reached for it faster than I realized what I was doing. I just inherently knew that I needed this book in my life. This is a book that is right up my alley – historical fiction and the Borgias – so find me quite surprised when I’m not immediately sucked into the universe that is the Italian Renaissance of Sarah Dunant. I went into this book expecting a palace of priceless treasures and came out less than impressed.
The characters that Ms. Dunant portrays are accurate and realistic but I’m sorry to say fall a bit flat. I feel like Ms. Dunant took some of the most vibrant historical figures and created something dingy and muddy. They come off as 2-dimensional at best and completely uninteresting at worst. They seemed to be laced with the writer’s prejudices, most of them not very positive, and it irked me a little to see some of my favorite historical characters depicted in a less than flattering light. Not that I expect everyone to be paraded around as demi-gods, but I don’t think they would have been as negative as she painted them. I also feel like she gave them such a negative light to make up for the lack of life in the book; a bit of a cop out that she could create characters that at least excited disgust or horror in the reader. And it fell completely on its face.
Cesare seemed always to be a brooding and angry cloud. Nothing he ever did was ever seen as really positive. When his feelings for the oh so innocent Lucrezia were revealed I could almost see the writer painting him as this demonic viper preying on the innocent angel in the corrupt Vatican palace. Lucrezia, in turn, always seemed very innocent and one dimensional. It wasn’t until the latter half of the book that she seemed to come into her own person, barely, and just in time for the book to end. I refuse to believe that Lucrezia, being a part of one of the most notorious families in history, remained as angelic and naïve as she is depicted. The characters seemed to ghost through the entire book at their peaks and lethargically crawl at their worst. Although I realize nobody in the family was ever really the archetypal ‘good guy’, I dislike that Ms. Dunant seemed to go out of her way to depict everyone in the Borgia family – save for the innocent Lady Lucrezia – as malicious, completely greedy and miserable souls. I feel short changed on that end, though I do admit they seemed to be accurate albeit drab portrayals of the real members of the House of Borgia.
The setting was constantly changing in a very good way. Ms. Dunant really covered a lot of ground in relatively little time. I feel like we went through every room in the Vatican, the palaces, the courtyard, main areas of Rome and even toured Italy in very little time and I appreciate that. Not a single minutiae was missed when describing the grandeur – or lack thereof – in the courts and palaces that were visited. The details were painstakingly noted and I appreciate that as a fan of the family and era. Otherwise, I kind of wonder if it didn’t drag a bit. But it takes a lot for a piece of literature to drag, in my opinion. Overall, great work with the setting – the weather, travel and depictions of war.
This is a historical fiction, so not a lot of surprises were in store. All I can really critique or comment on are the liberties she took – or did not take. I am appreciative – as a Borgia Slut – that she provided an explanation for the Roman baby. I also appreciate that in the murder of Juan Borgia Cesare was never in any real question. She made it very clear almost immediately that Cesare was not the one that murdered Juan. Something else I think she did very well was inject the plot with the fanatical and obsessive affection of Rodrigo Borgia. All these elements really added to the plot and made me extremely happy, despite the flat characters. There was occasionally a glimpse of color before you blinked it was gone.
There were many circles of conflict: Rodrigo vs. Lucrezia, Cesare vs. Rodrigo, Cesare vs. Lucrezia, Cesare vs. the State, Borgias vs. Italy. Like real life, she captured that aspect very well. There was no ‘big plot’ but a lot of small conflicts that helped to create the grander scale conflict. Aside from the conflicts of Borgia vs. Borgia, there was also the main overarching Borgia vs. the world that was headed more by Cesare than Rodrigo at times. I think that the Borgia stance in Rome was very well depicted in that it wasn’t as stable as it probably appeared to the world at the time. The constant threat of treachery and ruin made the story very real and believable. The conflicts that were taking place within the Vatican walls among the family and the struggle Cesare faced trying to conquer Italy was very realistic. Especially since Cesare did not have his own army.
It was extremely difficult for me to pass when Lucrezia did not reciprocate Cesare’s love. I didn’t like that conflict because in this little Tortie’s heart, they will always be the greatest romance to ever be related . . . or just ever. The conflicts around Lucrezia seemed almost childish at times but tolerable compared to her refusal of Cesare’s affections. Much more tolerable, in my opinion.
The novel ended on a bit of a cliff hanger but a very satisfying one none the less. The sacrifices Lucrezia makes are real and I think a very solid way to end the book. Although there was indication that a second book will be coming, it was a satisfactory end for the first part.
I am excited for the second part but at the same time kind of cringe at the thought that it will be filled with more dead characters that are unexcitedly glooming across the pages. Although there were very high points, the overall impression is that of bland dissatisfaction. I like the book because I am a Borgia Slut, not necessarily because it was very good. It gets the facts across with a dash of creativity but that’s about all you’re going to get out of this historical fiction.
Something very bittersweet is the attention she gave the diseases and illnesses that beset Rome. I’m happy that it was put in such graphic detail but a little conflicted and ISH-ie because my beloved Cesare had syphilis. It’s a very double edged sword but I can’t help but feel ecstatic she made the presence of syphilis in Rome so painfully clear.
Overall a little dissatisfied that it’s a relatively underdone family – compared to the Tudors – and it was very lack luster and severely wanting. The only reason, I believe, that I still liked the book was because I am such a Borgia Slut and love everything Borgia. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d have a whole lot of positive things to say about this book.
The Reading Tortie