Thursday, February 4, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Were the Borgias – Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI), Cesare (Duke of Valentinois) and Lucrezia – as power-hungry and evil as all that? In a word, yes. If you’re appalled by the insanity of current day politics, reassure yourself with some historical fiction. Fifteenth-century Italian political intrigue was deadly.

C. W. Gortner is one of my new favorite authors. (See my reviews of Mademoiselle Chanel and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici.) He has an extraordinary talent for telling the stories of complex, strong, and often maligned historical women. The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia, which will be released on February 9th, explores the life of this scandalous fifteenth century daughter of Pope Alexander VI.

Lucrezia has earned a bad reputation as a femme fatale because of her failed marriages and adultery, but the real reason for her poor reputation was her involvement in the affairs of her father, Pope Alexander, and her monstrous brother, Cesare. In this sympathetic novel, Lucrezia was not at fault. Although politically astute, proud, intelligent, and loyal to her family’s interests (at least, during her younger years), Lucrezia is not as ruthless as her Borgia blood would have her be. A woman’s influence could only go so far, and she was mainly a pawn in the games of the men in her family.

Gortner’s novel puts Lucrezia’s story in her own words. We follow along as she grows from a devoted young daughter, married off for political advantage, yearning to please her father and favorite brother, to a worldly-wise woman who wants only to escape their snares.

As usual, Gortner is able to immerse the reader in a vividly described past with a compelling narrative. The political maneuvering of the Borgias is complicated but presented in an accessible way. On occasion, this necessitates Lucrezia eavesdropping on men who say things like "as you know" before they present material to each other in a way that seems designed for Lucrezia’s ears and the readers’ eyes rather than a natural conversation. But the device is not used so much that it detracts from the flow of the book. Moreover, the crucial historical context is what elevates this novel to such a convincing fictional biography.

Historical fiction fans will love this latest offering from C.W. Gortner. And if you can’t get enough of the Borgias, I also recommend City of God by Cecelia Holland.