MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. The year is 1492; the month, August. That may bring to mind a certain explorer, but Christopher Columbus is not the subject of Sarah Dunant's new book. Lizzie Skurnick has this review of "Blood and Beauty," a new novel about the man who became pope just days after Columbus sailed for the new world.
LIZZIE SKURNICK, BYLINE: It would be nice if every era could get the historical fiction it deserves, whether the prose is literary, pop-culturey or even bodice-rippery. Well, put a check next to Renaissance Italy; Sarah Dunant has it covered. Her newest book is called "Blood and Beauty," and it brings us the redoubtable Borgia family in all of their complexity.
Ask anyone with a television about "The Borgias," and you'll probably hear about murder, incest and mayhem. The program is on Showtime, if this kind of thing appeals to you. But Dunant's family is more interesting that. Rodrigo Borgia comes to Rome as a somewhat ripe-smelling, Spanish cleric. As the novel begins, he's just become Pope Alexander VI in a maneuver that involved not only politics, but eight bags of silver. He then sets about installing his older offspring as heads of church and state.
Right - the offspring. Apparently, for these latter-day clergy, celibacy is not the same as abstinence. There's his oldest son, Cesare, a fellow political genius who can also skewer a wild boar with ease; his daughter, Lucrezia, who's used so often as a pawn in political marriages that two of her husbands have the same name. And then there's Giulia, his mistress, whom he's married off to his cousin in order to enjoy her pleasures in peace.
Dunant also writes contemporary thrillers, which can feel kind of formal compared to her historical fiction. But in "Blood & Beauty," she manages to be both formal and carnal. It's a tone that reflects the era wonderfully, like when a young Medici meditates on how the soon-to-be pope conducts pow-wows in the bathroom, deftly finding "the need to relieve himself when negotiations stick ..."
Dunant challenges the salacious take on the Borgias that history has left us with. It's a heady mix of the sacred and familiar. I read the book once without knowing anything about the Borgias, and then again with Wikipedia at the ready. Watching Pope Alexander puffing his way down the long, Vatican corridor to wave goodbye to his departing daughter at every window, made me cry in surprise on the first read; and again, in understanding, on the second.
In Dunant, whether you know the history or not, the story retains its power.
BLOCK: The book is "Blood and Beauty," by Sarah Dunant. Our reviewer, Lizzie Skurnick, is the editor-in-chief of a publishing imprint called Lizzie Skurnick Books.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.