Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant. A novel about the Borgias by one of my favorite historical fiction writers. Alas, it did not live up to my expectations.
A typical Dunant novel has a sort of overwrought, melodramatic glory: feelings (usually of women) are lovingly dwelt on, events matter less than their emotional consequences, and there's only a few important characters, so each one's subtle graduations of personality can be depicted in detail. Blood & Beauty is the opposite of that in nearly every way. It's told in third person omniscient with such an enormous cast of characters that three of them are murdered over the course of the book without any meaningful reduction in the overall numbers. The narrative attention is so widely divided that there isn't even really a protagonist to point to; Lucrezia, the daughter of the Borgia family, eventually emerges as a center of reader sympathy, but it takes nearly three hundred pages to get that point. Before then, she's only yet one more in a cast of thousands. It's hard to feel much of a connection to any of the characters when each individual gets so little time spent on them – don't get attached, because you might not see them again for ten chapters. Not to mention the vast number of people means most of them never get a particularly deep depiction, because there's just not enough page time for everyone to get an arc and a personality.
In addition to having too many characters, there's too many plot events. Which I know sounds like a weird thing to say! But when your novel involves four wars, two secret babies, six dramatic political marriages, at least two outbreaks of two different plagues, an uncounted number of murders (some of which need to be investigated and revenged), not to mention all the international alliances and political maneuvering, there's just too much going on. When you can't even bother to name all the people being illegally appointed to the College of Cardinals, it's probably a sign that the reader isn't going to care about each one either. Nothing has enough page-time to emotionally impact the reader; it's all just there and gone, immediately displaced by the next big event. Sure, stuff happens – but it all happens so briefly!
Finally, there's no arc to the book. It opens with Rodrigo Borgia becoming Pope Alexander VI and ends with Lucrezia heading off to marry Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. In between the family struggles to acquire more power and mostly succeeds. But there's no particular sense of completion – the family certainly isn't done acquiring power at the end, and though the narrative attempts to give Lucrezia's marriage the dramatic weight of a climax, this is hampered by the fact that a) Lucrezia only emerges as important in the second half of the book, and b) this is her third marriage and not self-evidently more important than the previous two. A summary would sound like "this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens, the end." There's no growth, no downfall, no change, no new lesson learned – nothing special to set apart these two points as the beginning and end. (And yes, I know there's a sequel out now, but the first book in a series still needs an arc of its own.) It reads like history textbook with slightly more flowery descriptions of the art and clothes.
But despite all of that, it's absolutely not a book that I could call boring. Dunant has an unfair advantage: all anyone needs to do is set down a basic description of the Borgias' activities and they've got a page-turner. The outline is compelling enough that things like 'craft' or 'characterization' can fall by the wayside without impacting the overall fun. Still, I couldn't help thinking about how much better the book could have been. When you've got such fantastic raw material to work with, why settle for good enough?
Mount TBR update: 15!
What are you currently reading?
The Windfall by Diksha Basu. A fairly cute novel about a middle-aged, middle-class couple from Delhi who suddenly come into millions of dollars of money, and how they adjust.
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