Sunday, July 21, 2013
It takes courage to write historical novels. What is there to say about characters known the public knows from books and television series? Kate Quinn answers this question brilliantly in THE SERPENT AND THE PEARL, a novel about Giulia Farnese and Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI. First of all, she turns Giulia and Rodrigo into freshly minted figures about whom the reader is compelled to care.Then she adds political intrigue, elegantly restrained descriptions of love making and several challenges to preconceptions about Renaissance mores.Her stage is Rome at the end of the Cinquecento though there are forays to Capodimonte. Her Giulia is an eighteen-year-old provincial when she marries aristocratic Orsino Orsini and moves from "..simpler surroundings--the trees and lakes of Capodimonte... (to) the basilicas and loggias of Rome." Up to then, her claim to fame is her beauty, " 'Breasts like white peaches, a pale column of a neck, a little face all rosy with happiness--and hair. Such hair, glinting gold in the sunlight...Dark blond, the color of crystallized honey ..shot (with) streaks of yellow-gold, apricot-gold and white-gold ...that ..covered (her) in great slow ripples all the way to (her) feet." Ecstatically happy her wedding day, Giulia finds out before long that her marriage is not quite what she expected. Enter Cardinal Borgia, whose biretta is firmly set on winning her. Despite being many years her senior and the father of several children, he courts her passionately, lavishing her with his Catalan charm plus gifts of pearls, purebred horses, and Murano glassware engraved with diamond point. How's a girl to resist? Borgia's courtship takes place while Rome is in turmoil. Ailing Pope Innocent VIII quaffs a daily "...dram of blood from the veins of virgin boys, as his doctors suggest, but gets no better. The Roman plebs assemble to loot the homes of the rich the moment the pope dies.As tensions mount, Giulia dithers until she meets young Lucrezia Borgia, whose pleas for her lecherous father's cause are most persuasive. Giulia makes a decision, "...Come to me, he said...I was too breathless to reply, but not too breathless to look around..." That look is her defining moment.She becomes the cardinal's concubine with eyes wide open.She may be biddable, but she is no victim. Carmelina, the mysterious Venetian cook who arrives on the scene on Giulia's wedding day, is also a woman who makes her own choices. She carries with her stolen recipes, the mummified hand of a saint and a huge secret.After rescuing the wedding banquet from certain disaster, she becomes a provider of delicacies that make the reader's mouth water: veal with morello cherries, bergamot pears with cloves, shad in a sauce of cinnamon and cloves, marzipan tourtes, crostatte of quinces and apple, lemony sardines and much more. Luckily, her patron is a true gourmande who eats when she's happy, sad or just in between. Then there is Leonello, a small person who flings barbed comments as likely to hurt as the Toledo blades he throws with deadly accuracy. Bookish, damaged, and somber he overshadows both Juan and Cesare Borgia, Pope Alexander's sons.As Giulia s bodyguard, but when it is time to guard Giulia from the invading French, there is no question of he must do. Readers of adventure stories will love this book and so will travelers, lovers of history, mysteries and romance. This BABETTE'S FEAST, LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE and APHRODITE: A MEMOIR OF THE SENSES,rolled into one, but make no mistake, Quinn's style is all her own. She rises to challenge of making an old story new and she does so with virtuosity.I cannot wait for next novel.