This is a novel about the real 15th century family: the Borgias. Anyone who saw the TV series a couple of years ago with Jeremy Irons as the Borgia Pope may be familiar with much of the storyline.
The head of the family is Roderigo Borgia who is a Spanish Cardinal who climbs the ranks of the church to become Pope Alexander VI. Like many churchmen in these times of corruption he has failed to keep his vows of chastity and has had mistresses and fathered children. 4 children, by the same mistress, form the nucleus of his family (although he also fathers 2 further children by a later mistress). He shows no shame or embarrassment at having a family, in fact he showers them with positions and titles. The family act as almost the royal family of the Papal States and this novel deals with their ambitions, love affairs and battles over the course of about 5 years.
The novel is based on fact but much about the Borgia family is unknown although there are lots of rather scandalous unsubstantiated rumours (involving things like poison, incest and fratricide). So Dunant has both factual details to guide her but exciting rumours to fully exercise her imagination! This is where the novel failed for me somewhat, with an opportunity to write her version of events she chooses instead to remain vague about things. She leaves it inconclusive as to whether one brother killed another or whether the family practiced incest – I would have preferred she choose to either make the family more heroic but maligned by history…or even worse and more scandalous than the rumours report! She does neither, she instead writes a pleasing but rather bland tale.
The book is well written enough and easy to read but is not a gripping story. The second half is a little more exciting as the family’s ambition grows and the eldest brother Cesare becomes ever more ruthless but overall it is not a page turner.