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Sarah Dunant – Blood and Beauty

August 20, 2013

60. Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant (2013)

Length: 500 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 28 July 2013
Finished: 05 August 2013

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? I like Sarah Dunant, and I like the Borgias.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 29 March 2013.

When your dad is the
pope, it’s hard to tell if love
or blood matters more.

Summary: Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, bought his way into the papacy, and although corruption is rife throughout all levels of Roman society, the scheming of the Borgia family has earned them many enemies. But as much as Borgia loves power, and the trappings of power, he loves his family equally as much. But the ties of blood do not stop him from using his illegitimate children – particularly his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter, Lucrezia – as pawns in his political schemes. Cesare is the youngest cardinal in the church, although he longs to put his intelligence to use in other arenas, while Lucrezia is a bargaining piece, sent to her first marriage when she is still but barely grown.

Review: I quite enjoyed Sarah Dunant’s previous three books set in renaissance Italy, so I was expecting to love this one as well. I like the Borgias, (both in book form and on TV; the Showtime series is amazingly addictive), and Sarah Dunant clearly knows her way around historical fiction, and this time period. But unfortunately, something about this book just didn’t quite spark for me.

I think that may have had something to do with the characterization, or the tone. In Dunant’s previous books, she was writing from a particular person’s point of view, and those people were all fictional. In this case, she’s writing about real people, and real events, and so maybe felt a little more constrained by the actual history? There’s also a more omniscient narrator in this book, frequently shifting points of view, which is something that I don’t remember from her other books, and which I found to be somewhat distancing here. In either case, I didn’t feel as though this novel really brought the characters to life the way I hoped it would. I understood their motivations, and they certainly were multi-dimensional, but they didn’t quite seem to be real, living people in the way that characters in the best historical fiction should be. (I will admit that I may hold a high standard in this regard for the Borgias in particular after watching the TV show, which does an excellent job of bringing its characters to life.)

I did think that Dunant did an excellent job with the history itself. We all know that I am not always the best of keeping track of shifting alliances and complicated political scheming, but Dunant laid out the various threads of the Italian nobility clearly enough that I had no problem following. I also thought she dealt with the scope of her novel quite well; able to cover long stretches of time while keeping the pacing of her story steady. Her take on some of the perennial questions surrounding the Borgias (whose child is the infant Romanus? Who killed Juan Borgia? etc.) was also interesting, and quite plausible, neatly paring away the malicious gossip of the Borgias’ enemies (who were numerous, and wrote most of the history) while still maintaining an appropriately scandalous feeling.

In sum, this book was entertaining enough, and certainly a faster read than might be expected given its scope and its size. But it just didn’t feel as personal and as immediate as a book about such a vivid period of history should. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It’s probably more historically accurate than most fictional accounts of the Borgias, even if it’s maybe not the liveliest, so if you’re interested in the period or the people, it’s worth checking out.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Devourer of Books, That’s What She Read
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Dawn is a pale bruise in the night sky when, from inside the palace, a window is flung open and a face appears, its features distorted by the firelight thrown up from the torches beneath.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 41: “The heavier labor he leaves to others: mules, carts, servants bowed under the weight of tapestries, bedsteads, chests of gold plate and majolica and great coats-of-arms of the Borgia bull.” – Tin-glazed earthenware that is often richly colored and decorated, especially an earthenware of this type produced in Italy.
  • p. 65: “With his own protected candle Alexander crosses into the center of the chapel, feeling the rise of the marble under his slippered feet as it moves towards the transenna.” – Latticework of marble or metal enclosing a shrine.
  • p. 102: “With so much outré fashion vying for attention, the Duke of Gandia’s fanfaronade entrance – a chest of jewels masquerading as a suit of clothes – is greeted with remarkable good humor.” – Bragging or blustering manner or behavior.
  • p. 254: “Vannozza, like many parvenus, has always been fierce in the upholding of manners.” – A person who has suddenly risen to a higher social and economic class and has not yet gained social acceptance by others in that class.
  • p. 292: ““My name – which is our name – is being traduced.”” – To cause humiliation or disgrace to by making malicious and false statements.
  • p. 472: “Sancia has taken to wearing a silvered voile headdress that brings out the drama of her coloring.” – A light, plain-weave, sheer fabric of cotton, rayon, silk, or wool used especially for making dresses and curtains.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2013 8:33 am

    I struggled so much with this one that I eventually gave up about a third of the way through. Too much concentration on the trappings of wealth and not enough narrative drive.

    Thanks for an interesting review. :)

    • September 1, 2013 8:38 pm

      FictionFan – It’s good to hear that I’m not the only one who had a hard time with it! Sarah Dunant’s usually so reliable that I was partly wondering if it was just me.

  2. August 20, 2013 9:29 am

    I just don’t enjoy reading about that time period so this probably isn’t for me.

  3. August 21, 2013 2:56 pm

    I dropped this one on the DNF pile around page 60. Not finishing surprised me because I expected to love this book. I enjoy reading about the Borgias and this time period but it just didn’t work for me. I didn’t care about any of the characters and got tired of hearing about how rich they were. I’d love to try another Dunant book though because everyone seems to like her writing.

    • September 1, 2013 8:39 pm

      Amy – I’ve liked her other books that I’ve read – I’d probably recommend In the Company of the Courtesan first, although they’re all good.


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