Being a big fan of 2009's Sacred Hearts, I was thrilled to get my hands on a galley of Sarah Dunant's latest foray into Renaissance Italy, Blood & Beauty. But where Sacred Hearts focused on women shut up in convents far from the world, Blood & Beauty is about women and men whose lives are fully engaged with the world. This book is about the notorious Borgia family, particularly about Rodrigo Borgia/Pope Alexander VI and his family- his young lover Giulia, the aging courtesan Vanozza, mother of his children, and most especially those children- Lucrezia, Cesare, Juan and Jofre.
Renaissance Popes were like kings in more ways than one, and Alexander is the ultimate power broker. His children are his pawns and agents; they do his bidding while he orchestrates and finesses and schemes. Lucrezia is destined for a series of political marriages, and she has to learn along the way that love is the one luxury she can never afford. Cesare starts off as Alexander's agent inside the Vatican as a young cardinal. Alexander plans for Juan to act for him in the world, and Jofre is, well, Alexander loves Jofre.
Dunant starts with historical fact (and includes a bibliography) but that's just where she starts. She creates believable psychologies for her real-life characters, fleshes out their relationships and draws a fascinating portrait of life at the Vatican court. Dunant includes a family tree at the beginning and I used it to track the complicated interrelationships of Italy's noble families. I found the book totally riveting. It's rich in historical detail- some readers call it textbooky and it is sometimes, but these people were living history, so to understand their lives it's important to follow the ins and outs of politics and military strategy and maneuvering- but she always gets back to the people at the heart of these events.
In tone Blood & Beauty reminds me of Wolf Hall but with more sexual content. One bookstore customer came in after listening to the audio ranting that it was a "bodice ripper" and I can see his point. Also, I think the book would probably sound different than it reads. Overall though- not even "overall," because that sounds like I'm hesitating to give it a full endorsement- I really enjoyed the book, and I would recommend it for most readers of historical and literary fiction. I loved the characters- scheming Alexander, maturing Lucrezia, angry and mercurial Cesare and charming, doomed Juan. I loved watching their games and struggles and shenanigans. Dunant's writing a sequel and I would start reading it right now if I could. Check it out, okay?
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.