- Paperback: 496 pages
- Publisher: Virago; 1 edition (27 February 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1844087484
- ISBN-13: 978-1844087488
- Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 3.1 x 19.9 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 381 g
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 99,120 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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In The Name of the Family: A Times Best Historical Fiction of the Year Book Paperback – 27 Feb 2018
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Confirms Sarah Dunant's place as the leading novelist of the Renaissance and one of the most acclaimed historical fiction writers of our age. Follows the brilliant Blood and Beauty and The Birth of Venus
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Sarah Dunant never disappoints and this newest novel is sure to satisfy! Highly recommended.
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The patriarch of the family is Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia). Originally from Spain, he is seen as a foreign upstart by the Italian nobility. He has fathered several illegitimate children, most notably Cesare, leader of a mercenary army, and Lucrezia, who serves as her father’s marriage pawn in the complicated political games of Renaissance Italy. The book opens in the winter of 1501-1502, as Lucrezia, at twenty-two, journeys to the court of Ferrara to marry her third husband, Alfonso d’Este, the heir to the Duke of Ferrara. She is still grieving for her beloved second husband, another Alfonso, who was murdered at her brother’s orders when her marriage became politically inconvenient. With only her loyal ladies-in-waiting for support, Lucrezia enters the hostile environment of the Ferrarese court. Her husband is a surly, uncommunicative man, whose chief interests are forging cannons and sleeping with prostitutes, from whom he has contracted syphilis. Lucrezia’s miserly father-in-law withholds the enormous dowry her father had promised her. He and Lucrezia’s snobbish sister-in-law, Isabella, regard Lucrezia as too low-born for the Este family, who are members of the old Italian nobility. But Lucrezia asserts her rights, and eventually she is allowed to keep her dowry. She finds comfort in her friendship with the poet Pietro Bembo, and becomes his muse. But when it seems that their relationship will develop into something more, she realizes she cannot act on her feelings for Bembo without shattering her father’s alliance with Ferrara.
Meanwhile, Lucrezia’s brother Cesare plunders his way through the cities of the Romagna at the head of his army as he attempts to carve out a Borgia state. He becomes more and more unstable as he descends into syphilitic madness. Even his father starts to fear him. Cesare brutally puts down a rebellion against him among his subordinates. But Cesare, who always seems to do the unexpected, has a tenderer side, as can be seen when he rushes to Lucrezia’s bedside when he hears she is ill.
Dunant tells the story from several points of view, including Lucrezia, Cesare, and the Pope. A compelling addition is the point of view of Niccolò Machiavelli. A young Florentine diplomat, Machiavelli goes as an envoy to Cesare Borgia and becomes fascinated by him. His experiences with Cesare will become the inspiration for The Prince. Machiavelli is a complex character, who drinks heavily and spends time with prostitutes, but with strong feelings for his new wife, Marietta, a young woman with an interest in politics that is unusual for a woman of her time. In fact, I would have liked to see more of Marietta Machiavelli.
In the Name of the Family is a masterful historical novel. It’s not the easiest book to follow, with its many points of view, but it makes for rewarding reading. It is probably best to read Dunant’s first novel about the Borgias, Blood and Beauty, first, but In the Name of the Family can be read on its own.
Victor Hugo did not nudge Dunant over the edge and down the slippery slope, where so many novelists, film makers, Showtime series producers have happily slid before her. She shrugs off the Borgia baggage of sensationalism, alternative facts and fake news in hope of getting the story right.Those who appreciate a little reality in their escapism will thank her for it.
Taking on the Borgias must have presented a different sort of challenge. An author known for her arresting details (the serpent tattoo in Birth of Venus, clever writing strategies (narrating In the Company of the Courtesan from the dwarf’s perspective), and powerful plot twists (making Suor Zuana in Sacred Hearts into a Friar-Lawrence-cum-Prospero, who brings lovers together in the end) chose to confront the constraints imposed by the historical Borgias (whose lives, after all, offer plenty of “fact” to stimulate this author’s fertile imagination).
She also recognized that a few days’ surfing safari on Wikipedia would not suffice for historical background. Readers can tell she has read widely in primary as well as secondary literature, not only because of the concluding bibliography, but also because of the way things in the book look (Lucrezia’s Ferrara apartments look right), sound (we hear Tromboncino and the nuns of Corpus Domini—not Handel, as on Showtime), and smell. Not to mention how characters speak—Cesare’s portentous speeches to Machiavelli ring true; Lucrezia’s humanistic arguments with Pietro Bembo seem to take a page from Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier.
Don’t get me wrong—this IS fiction. There are plenty of imaginative flights too: the portrait of Machiavelli as diplomat, tested by Cesare Borgia, and as husband, tested (with particular charm) by his new wife; the discreet treatment of Lucrezia’s relationship with the poet Bembo (sorry—no bodice ripping here); the suggestion that Lucrezia contracted syphilis from her husband (offering another opportunity to bring in a wise convent apothecary to try to set things right , rather like Suor Zuana from Sacred Hearts; Lucrezia’s challenging relationship with her pious, skinflint father-in-law, Ercole I d’Este, and the even more challenging one with her rival sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este, Duchess of Mantua (always ready for the most polite cat fight).
The ending left me a bit puzzled. Given where we were historically, with not many pages to go, I was anticipating a third volume to fill out a Borgia trilogy. Instead, there was a rather brief postlude, sorting out Lucrezia as mother and matron and Machiavelli as exile, husband, and father. There’s material enough for a third volume, if Dunant wished to take it on.