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In the Name of the Family

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I am a great fan of historical novelist Sarah Dunant.  When I wrote a “Bookin’ with Sunny” review of Blood & Beauty, Dunant’s novel that depicts the rise of the Borgia family, I mentioned how eagerly I looked forward to a sequel.  Now that I’ve finished reading the sequel, however, I’m not as enthusiastic about Dunant’s achievement.  In the Name of the Family, for me at least, is just not a compelling read.  And that is not Sarah Dunant’s fault at all.  Rather, it is the fault of history.

Imprisoned by an all-too-familiar storyline that trends downhill into duplicitous decadence and murderous mayhem, Dunant must adhere to the historical facts.  While she can embroider her characters’ personalities and give life to their relationships, finally, she cannot control her protagonists’ ordained destinies.  They simply are fated to enter into twisted alliances, betray one another with alacrity, and fight more skirmishes and bloody battles than I care to contemplate.  I repeat.  The trajectory is not Dunant’s fault but, rather, the fault of history.

Dunant does her best with flawed material.  Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia elder, disintegrates with exquisite flair.  As a churchman, he has always been duplicitous.  As a father, he has always been an enabler.  Now, as an old man, he falls prey to his son’s ambitions (and his own).  Likewise, his son Cesare grows even more Machiavellian than his sire, manipulating and/or executing everyone who gets in his way.  I thought the rise of both father and son rather fun to follow in Blood & Beauty, but their steady disintegration in In the Name of the Family soon becomes tedious and predictable.  I repeat. Dunant does her best.  She acutely adds Niccolo Machiavelli to the Borgia mix, giving the young Florentine opportunities to observe Prince Valentine in action and to comment on the soldier’s strategies.  The ways in which this prince manipulates lesser men around him is a foretaste of what will become Machiavelli’s treatise, The Prince.  Dunant perceptively fictionalizes the embryonic Florentine author, giving him In the Name of the Family’s first word, and also its last.

She tries to humanize her novel, too, with chapters that trace the third marriage of Lucrezia Borgia.  Once again, however, fate deals a less-than-winning hand.  Lucrezia’s third husband isn’t a very interesting man, and for most of the narrative their relationship not only has no spark but also has almost no communication.  Because the year of Cesare Borgia’s last campaign historically coincides with Lucrezia’s near-death when she gives birth to a still-born child, this subplot turns out to be more depressing than uplifting.  Her subsequent recovery in a nunnery can’t rescue In the Name of the Family’s morbid tone, although her later poetic flirtations add some welcome levity.

Normally, I don’t review novels I can’t recommend, but this one is different.  For one thing, In the Name of the Family gives closure to the story begun in Blood & Beauty.  Anyone intrigued by the Borgias’ Renaissance rise and fall will find the downward spiral half of the historical path a trail worth pursuing.   Moreover, Dunant always writes very well. With a flair for analogy and metaphoric imagery, she breathes life onto every page.  Even when the subject matter is dismal (how many syphilitic symptoms do we really need to experience?), her prose is taut and detailed.  Finally, the historical insight is worth contemplating.  “Vengeance,” Dunant writes when describing the Borgia mindset, “runs like a blood-colored thread through centuries of Roman history.” That I tired of In the Name of the Family’s blood-spattered warp and weft is my problem, not Dunant’s.   –  Ann Ronald

Also available by Sarah Dunant: The Birth of Venus; Blood & Beauty; In the Company of the Courtesan; Sacred Hearts; Mapping the Edge; Fatlands; Snowstorms in a Hot Climate; Birth Marks; Transgressions; Under My Skin.

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