01 July 2013

Review: Blood & Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant

The publication of Sarah Dunant's latest foray into historical fiction, Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, is well timed to take advantage of the current popularity of the family on television and in print. Relying on meticulous research, Dunant provides her own interpretation of the abundant facts and rumors that surround Pope Alexander VI and his children, particularly Cesare and Lucrezia.

Born in Spain, Rodrigo Borgia plotted his rise to pope with careful cunning. Once on the papal throne as Alexander VI, he divided his attentions between the good of the Church and the betterment of his family. Blood & Beauty begins at the eve of the election of the Borgia pope in 1492 and follows the family for a tumultuous decade as they build their resources and reputation.

Thanks to the secrecy of the Vatican and the political and monetary ambitions of Pope Alexander and his son Cesare, many of the details of the Borgias' lives will never be fully known. Historians are still debating specific incidents in the family's rise to fame, and Dunant's interpretations of the available historical material are a mix of mainstream and unique.

Blood & Beauty is an extremely readable account of a complicated family that took advantage of every opportunity. The late 1400s were colored by stories of Columbus's journeys, the spread of syphilis, the great rebirth of art and music and science, rumblings of the Reformation and Protestantism, and political upheaval in Europe and particularly in Italy. Without straying from her focus on the Borgias--specifically Alexander and two of his children, Cesare, and Lucrezia--Dunant infuses her novel with period details, providing a vivid context in which the story plays out.

If you're a fan of the Showtime series The Borgias, have read Machiavelli's The Prince, or have read any of the histories of the family you'll be fascinated by Dunant's account. Her ability to breath life into historical figures is at its peak in Blood & Beauty. She is such a master at rendering the growth and decline of the major players that the characters' reactions to events are both believable and understandable.

Readers who know something about the Borgias will be talking about Dunant's take on the family's history. While she asks the principal questions (e.g., what exactly was the fate of Juan Borgia, what was the relationship between Cesare and Lucrezia), Dunant never forgets that her characters were real people, and her answers depend on individual personalities as well as on solid research.

Blood & Beauty: The Borgias is Sarah Dunant at her best. In Dunant's capable hands, this story of the political and sexual intrigue surrounding one of history's most notorious families is sure to be a summer hit. I hope we don't have long to wait to read Dunant's follow-up novel covering the final years of Pope Alexander and his children.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Random House Audio; 17 hr, 35 min) in a record three days. I simply couldn't stop listening to Edoardo Ballerini's fantastic performance. His excellent pacing, accents, and characterizations kept me glued to my earbuds. Whether narrating conversations or descriptive text, Ballerini reads with the perfect touch of drama: just enough to build the tension and create empathy but not so much that he dictates our reactions.

Published by Random House, July 16, 2013
ISBN-13: 9781400069293
Rating: A (audio edition)
Source: review (audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).


rhapsodyinbooks 7/1/13, 7:49 AM  

I love Dunant but she does write complicated stuff. I'm saving this book for when I'm in the mood for complicated books. Right now the mood is light, maybe with murder thrown in! LOL

Tina 7/1/13, 8:07 AM  

I really need to get some audiobooks via our local library. I just never think of that when I am checking out books.
Durante is a very detailed writer, this would be a great listen in version.

Daryl 7/1/13, 9:06 AM  

interesting .. hadnt been watching The Borgias but now that this seasons Game of Thrones is over i may need to check it out ..

Literate Housewife 7/1/13, 9:23 AM  

I know nothing about this family, but I must read this book. Having Edoardo Ballerini narrate means this will be an audiobook read for me. Thanks for the great review.

Barbara 7/1/13, 10:24 AM  

I've heard of the Borgia's but for some reason I never read anything about them. This sounds like a good way to learn what all the fuss is about.

bermudaonion 7/1/13, 11:10 AM  

My book club read a Borgia book a few years ago. I didn't love it but everyone else did. I'll have to tell them about this book.

Julie P. 7/1/13, 12:37 PM  

Now I'm thinking maybe I should have requested this one. I was interested but the length of the novel scared me a bit.

Beth Hoffman 7/1/13, 3:28 PM  

I'll confess that the length of this novel originally was a bit off putting. But your review is so wonderful that I'm considering giving a try!

Laurie C 7/2/13, 6:27 AM  

I never thought I would like Wolf Hall but I loved it on audio. Since I missed listening to Beautiful Ruins narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, maybe I'll try this one that he also narrates.

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