Sunday, May 22, 2016

Book Review: "The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia" by C. W. Gortner

This was an intensely enthralling read that transported me into the psyche of the protagonist. The novel is written from the perspective of Lucrezia Borgia in the first person. I’m usually not a fan of first-person narration, but it works surprisingly well in this novel, not to mention that the narrator is a male speaking in a female voice. There are a few graphic violent scenes that might not appeal to some readers.

The author successfully spins a possible theory and gripping plot about the much-maligned Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, or Rodrigo Borgia, focusing on her first two political marriages and the enigmatic childbirth in between. In the narration, she morphs from an innocent adolescent who adores her family, especially her father and her older brother Cesare, to a victimized mature young woman who realizes that all her sufferings emanate from her family’s cruel and shadowy machinations. The transformation is fraught with unspeakable shame and pain, both physical and emotional. Her personal vicissitudes are set against a backdrop of political power strife between the Borgias’ papal monarchy and other Italian city-states and two European superpowers: Spain and France.

While the novel gives imaginary answers to the two burning questions that have been the subject of debate for centuries (did Lucrezia commit incest re: the enigmatic childbirth, and who murdered Juan Borgia?), in the end, there is no way of knowing what the “truth” really is.

The author says this in the Afterword, “This novel presents one possible theory (about Lucrezia’s incest), but I must emphasize that it is fictional, as is my theory about Juan Borgia’s murder. The frustrating truth is that we have no reliable documentation about what went on behind the Borgias’ closed doors.”

I find that many of the historical background details are similar to those found in Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, which suggests that the novel is well-researched. While Dunant employs a subtle and even keel approach in her writing, Gortner’s style in The Vatican Princess is more pungent and action-oriented. In Blood & Beauty, the characterization of Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia are given more or less equal weighting, and the battle scenes and political intrigues are given a relatively detailed rendering. In The Vatican Princess, the spotlight rivets on the person of Lucrezia and her emotional trajectory.

Gortner’s vivid writing style and the tight plot structure appeal to me and I’m giving the novel 4 stars.