The Last Son’s Secret by Rafel Nadal Farreras

This novel by Catalan author Rafel Nadal Farreras apparently enjoyed a lot of success when published in its original language in 2015 and is now available for the first time in an English translation by Mara Faye Lethem.

The story is set in the Puglia region of Italy where, in the small town of Bellorotondo, the names of twenty-one members of the Palmisano family are engraved on a memorial to the First World War. Vito Oronzo, the last Palmisano man to die in the war, leaves behind a pregnant wife, Donata. When the child – a boy whom she names Vitantonio – is born, Donata is so afraid that her son will succumb to the curse of the Palmisanos that she takes desperate measures to secure his safety.

The Last Son’s Secret follows little Vitantonio through his idyllic childhood in rural Italy, growing up alongside Giovanna Convertini, the daughter of his father’s best friend who was also killed on the same day in 1918.

They took dips in the stone laundry trough, caught crickets in the garden, ran through the fields as the farmers cleared the dead leaves from the olive trees, and they ate dinner together at the kitchen table. In the evenings everyone gathered on the threshing floor and sat in the cool air: the grown-ups sang and told stories and the children played hide-and-seek until they were so worn out they fell asleep on their aunt’s lap.

Elsewhere in Puglia, however, life is not so pleasant. A neighbour’s six-year-old son is sold into child labour, while in the nearby cave houses of Matera families live in extreme poverty. Further afield, Mussolini is rising to power and Europe is on the brink of war once more. Eventually, Vitantonio, Giovanna and their friends will be forced to take sides. Will the Palmisano curse strike again or has Donata done enough to protect her son from his father’s fate?

I enjoyed The Last Son’s Secret; despite it being set during the two world wars, it’s not as depressing as it might sound – the likeable main character and the messages of hope and optimism are enough to counteract the darker aspects of the plot. The depiction of life in Italy between the wars is beautiful and I could easily imagine I was there in Bellorotondo, harvesting olives, picking cherries and planting flowers in the garden of the Convertini palazzo. I particularly liked the descriptions of Matera, where Vitantonio hides out for a while at the beginning of the war.

The Second World War chapters are also interesting to read, and I couldn’t help thinking how rarely I have read anything that looks at the war from an Italian perspective. This is certainly the first time I have read a fictional portrayal of the chemical disaster caused by the release of mustard gas during the sinking of the American ship John Harvey in the port of Bari.

The Last Son’s Secret is a surprisingly quick read, but it did take me a few chapters to really get into the story. This is probably because it begins with a long chronicle of the deaths of the Palmisano men, which I expect was intended to be a quirky and unusual opening to the novel but didn’t quite work for me. Also, while Vitantonio’s story was moving at times, I don’t really think I would describe it as the sweeping, heartbreaking epic promised by the blurb. Maybe some of the emotion was lost in translation – although in general I did think the translation flowed well and I had no real complaints about it. If any other books by Rafel Nadal Farreras become available in English I would be happy to read them.

This is Book 3/20 for my 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

The Vatican Princess by CW Gortner

Since putting together my recent post on historical fiction covers, I seem to be feeling more critical than usual of the covers of the books I read.  I really don’t like this one as not only is it (almost) one of the faceless women covers I highlighted, but there’s nothing about it to suggest the darkness and intrigue usually associated with the Borgias.  Fortunately, though, I did enjoy the book – with a few reservations.  

Set in Renaissance Italy, The Vatican Princess is narrated by Lucrezia Borgia – seductive, manipulative and a well-known poisoner.  Or was she?  Actually, in this version of the Borgia story, she is none of those things.  CW Gortner is very sympathetic to Lucrezia’s situation, portraying her as a vulnerable young woman used by various members of her family to their own advantage and to further their own ambitions.  The novel opens in 1492, with Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, bribing his way to the papal throne as Pope Alexander VI (the second book I’ve read this month featuring a papal conclave).  Lucrezia is only twelve years old but that’s old enough to be useful to her father in securing political alliances and, with this in mind, Rodrigo marries her off to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro.   

Lucrezia’s marriage to Giovanni is not a happy one and although it will eventually be annulled and she will marry again – twice – this period of her life forms the largest portion of The Vatican Princess.  It’s a very eventful period and one with plenty of mysteries and controversies, providing endless possibilities for an author to explore.  Why did Lucrezia enter confinement in the Convent of San Sisto while the annulment of her marriage was negotiated?  Did she have a secret son?  Who murdered her brother, Juan?  And was Lucrezia really involved in an incestuous relationship with her other brother, Cesare?  Gortner offers answers, or at least theories, to all of these questions, while showing Lucrezia in a generally very positive light and suggesting that she had much less control over her own fate than is often thought.    

As our narrator, Lucrezia is engaging and easy to like, but I couldn’t help feeling that she was a little bit too innocent and too good to be true – and this made her less interesting to read about than she should have been.  I thought the ambitious Rodrigo was portrayed well, but Cesare needed more complexity and Juan was purely evil with no nuances to his character at all.  However, I was intrigued by the other main female characters in the book: Lucrezia’s mother, Vannozza; the Pope’s mistress, Giulia Farnese; and Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, Sancia of Aragon.  I would be interested in reading more about all of these women, as they have not featured very heavily in the few other fictional accounts of the Borgias that I’ve read so far.       

This is the second novel I’ve read by CW Gortner and although I did enjoy it (and always love a Renaissance Italy setting), I preferred the other one, The Last Queen, which was about Juana of Castile.  I would like to read more of his books, but I don’t really feel drawn to his Tudor mystery series – published as Christopher Gortner – or his recent novels on Marlene Dietrich and Coco Chanel, so that would leave either The Queen’s Vow (about Isabella of Castile) or The Confessions of Catherine de’ Medici.  Have you read either of those?  Which should I read first?     

As for the Borgias, maybe I’ll have another attempt at reading Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant soon.  I struggled to get into it the first time but am happy to try again!

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

Prince of Foxes This was the book chosen for me in the Classics Club Spin a few months ago; I’m a day late posting this review (the deadline was yesterday) but I did actually finish the book in time. It has taken me a while to decide what to say about this wonderful novel and I probably still haven’t done it justice! I had at least three reasons for adding Prince of Foxes to my Classics Club list in the first place: it’s a classic historical fiction/adventure novel published in 1947 and set in Renaissance Italy, a period I love; it sounded very similar to the work of Rafael Sabatini, an author I love; and it came highly recommended by The Idle Woman, whose blog I love. It seemed inevitable, then, that I would love the book itself – and fortunately I did.

In 1500, when Prince of Foxes begins, Italy is divided into a collection of city-states which are constantly at war, leaving them vulnerable to foreign invasion. Our hero, Andrea Orsini, dreams of seeing the country united under one ruler and has entered the service of the ruthless and powerful Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. We first meet Andrea in Venice, preparing to undertake a mission for the Borgias. He has been given the task of travelling to Ferrara to try to negotiate a marriage between Alfonso d’Este, son of Duke Ercole, and Lucrezia Borgia, Cesare’s sister. When the d’Estes hear about this, however, they decide to have Andrea killed in Venice before he can reach Ferrara – but the murder attempt is foiled and the hired assassin, Mario Belli, ends up switching sides and joining Andrea on his journey.

If he is successful, the Borgias have promised to reward Andrea with the strategically placed hill town of Città del Monte, and the town’s ruling lady, the beautiful Camilla degli Baglione, as his wife. The problem is, Camilla’s husband, the elderly Lord Varano, is still alive and must be disposed of before Andrea will be able to claim his reward. As Andrea gets to know both Varano and Camilla, he finds that he’s not at all sure he’ll be able to betray them into the hands of Cesare when the time comes. Torn between his loyalty to the Borgias (and the personal ambition which goes with it) and his increasing love and respect for Camilla and her husband, Andrea is faced with making a decision which could affect not only his own future but the future of Italy.

As well as navigating his way through this delicate political situation, Andrea and Belli have a number of adventures involving battles, duels, clever disguises, last-minute escapes, sieges, miracles and all sorts of trickery and deception. I was right in thinking that this book would be similar to Sabatini; in particular, I kept being reminded of Bellarion (a previous Classics Spin read) which is also set in Renaissance Italy and includes many of the same elements. But while I remember feeling irritated by the perfection of the main character in Bellarion, I did like Andrea Orsini. He’s another hero who is good at everything, but with just enough flaws and ambiguities to make him interesting. Mario Belli was my favourite, though – and I can’t say too much about him without spoiling the story!

I also loved Camilla, an intelligent and courageous woman with a sense of humour, although other female characters such as Lucrezia and Angela Borgia felt less well developed. Moving away from the novel’s central characters, there’s also a fascinating supporting cast consisting of assorted dukes, lords and ambassadors, soldiers (including the Chevalier de Bayard) and saints (Lucia of Narni). The language used throughout the novel always feel appropriate to the time period and the dialogue is subtle and witty.

Not being an expert on the Renaissance (although I always enjoy reading about it and am gradually building up my knowledge) I found that I was learning a lot from Prince of Foxes as well as being entertained by it. It really is a great book and if anyone else has read it – or seen the 1949 film version with Tyrone Power and Orson Welles – I’d love to know what you thought.

The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen

Marjorie Bowen was a new discovery for me towards the end of last year. Born Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell, she wrote more than one hundred and fifty books under several pseudonyms, covering a variety of genres from historical fiction and romance to supernatural horror, crime fiction and biography. Having enjoyed Dickon, her fictional account of the life of Richard III, I decided not to wait too long to try another of her books.

The Viper of Milan The Viper of Milan, originally published in 1906, was Bowen’s first novel and a favourite book of the author Graham Greene. This reissue by Endeavour Press includes an introduction by Greene (I recommend reading it at the end to avoid spoilers) in which he explains how Bowen influenced his own early attempts at writing. The Viper of Milan, he says, taught him that human nature is “not black and white but black and grey”.

The novel is set in Lombardy in the middle of the 14th century and follows a battle for power between Gian Galeazzo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, and Mastino della Scala, Duke of Verona. As the story opens, in 1360, Visconti is busy expanding his territories and forging alliances; he has forced della Scala out of Verona and taken his wife, Isotta d’Este of Ferrara, as a hostage. It seems that nobody can stop Visconti in his relentless conquest of northern Italy – nobody apart from della Scala, who vows to regain his lost lands and release Isotta from captivity.

Meanwhile, Visconti’s sister Valentine has problems of her own: her brother has arranged a marriage for her with the Duke of Orleans, while the man she really loves has been imprisoned in a deserted villa outside the city and is slowly starving to death. Another young lady, Graziosa, who lives with her artist father by the western gate of Milan, is also in love – but is her lover really as he seems?

As you can probably tell from my summary of the plot, The Viper of Milan is a dark tale of treachery, trickery and betrayal. I was amazed to learn that Marjorie Bowen was only sixteen years old when she wrote it. Apparently it was rejected by several publishers who considered it an inappropriate novel for such a young woman to have written. What interests me more than the darkness of the story, though, is – as Graham Greene said – Bowen’s view of the ambiguities of human nature. The Duke of Milan, a clever, patient and shrewd man, is also a cruel and brutal one, ruling through fear and violence. In contrast, the Duke of Verona is honest, honourable and trusting, inspiring respect and admiration in those who follow him. It’s only when he discovers that doing the right thing doesn’t always pay that he begins to wonder whether it’s worth continuing to stick to his morals.

After reading Dickon, I thought I had an idea of what to expect from Bowen’s writing, but I found The Viper of Milan to be very different in style and tone. The archaic language which felt slightly unnatural in Dickon suited this book perfectly, with its more melodramatic and gothic feel. This is an ideal read for people who, like myself, enjoy reading authors like Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini (in fact, Sabatini’s Bellarion is a very similar novel, set in the same part of Italy at about the same time).

If you do choose to read this book, I should warn you that the historical background to the story is not particularly accurate. Some of the characters have the names of real historical figures, but the plot is fictional and many of the things that happen have no basis in history. Having said that, the novel does capture perfectly the atmosphere of early Renaissance Italy with its warring city states and is a wonderfully entertaining story in its own right. There are some beautifully written descriptions of the Lombardy region too. If this sounds like your sort of book, then I would highly recommend The Viper of Milan. If not, Marjorie Bowen does seem to have been a very versatile author, so maybe one of her other books would be of more interest. I will be reading more of them, so I’ll let you know what I discover!

City of God by Cecelia Holland

City of God Since 1966 Cecelia Holland has written over thirty novels, most of them historical fiction, and some are now being re-released in ebook format by Open Road Integrated Media. As I’ve never read any of her work before, I was pleased to receive a copy of her 1979 novel, City of God, via NetGalley.

City of God is set in Rome at the beginning of the sixteenth century and, as the subtitle suggests, it is A Novel of the Borgias. With the former Rodrigo Borgia now Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia family already wield a large amount of influence in Rome, but the Pope’s illegitimate son, the condottiero Cesare Borgia, is now turning his attention to conquering the rest of the Italian city states. Cesare, known as Duke Valentino, has a reputation for being cruel and ruthless and even as he plots and schemes his way to power, his enemies are conspiring against him.

We see all of this through the eyes of Nicholas Dawson, secretary to the Florentine ambassador to Rome. Raised at a Spanish monastery after his English parents died in Pamplona, Nicholas is a man who seems to have no real connection or loyalty to any particular country or city. This makes him an ideal target for Valentino, who has his eye on Florence and needs a spy within the Florentine embassy. Nicholas has already been secretly rewriting the ambassador’s dispatches to suit his own political views – will betraying Florence to the Borgias be the next step?

As this is the first Cecelia Holland novel I’ve read I didn’t know what to expect – and I was quite surprised. This is a book with a very dark and claustrophobic atmosphere and the writing is completely unromantic, focusing firmly on the political machinations of Nicholas and the Borgias and the intrigue of the Papal Court.

I didn’t find this an easy book to read, but that’s because I’m not very familiar with the Borgias or the history of Rome in this period and Holland does seem to assume that the reader has some previous knowledge. She doesn’t spend much time explaining the negotiations, alliances and conflicts between Spain, France and the various Italian city states, but expects us to already understand the politics involved. I do like historical fiction that makes me think and that encourages me to look things up for myself so I can learn about the period, but I did wish I had known more about the subject before I started!

The characters in City of God are very unlikeable. The book doesn’t challenge the popular view of the Borgias as scheming and corrupt – Alexander is a Pope who gambles and who has mistresses and children, while Cesare is brutal and unscrupulous and Lucrezia, his sister, is the subject of gossip and suspicion – and the people around them are not much better. I found nobody to sympathise with or to admire, not even Nicholas. This wasn’t a big problem, though, as I can often still enjoy a book without liking the characters – and at least they were interesting.

Nicholas himself is a fascinating, complex character but it’s never obvious where his loyalties lie or if he even has any at all. He appears to be motivated by self-interest, ambition and the desire for power, and he enjoys using his brains to give advice to the Borgias and to act independently of the Ambassador. I’m not sure I ever fully understood what Nicholas was trying to do, but something that happens right at the end of the book made me think again about what he was hoping to achieve. Nicholas is also a gay man living in a time when it is dangerous to be openly homosexual and this adds another layer to the novel. His relationship with a young man called Stefano is an important aspect of the plot (though don’t expect a great love story, as even this part of the novel is free of romance and sentiment).

City of God was an interesting and unusual read; I didn’t love it but I do want to try another of Cecelia Holland’s books as I think I might prefer one with a different setting. Now that more of her books are being made available again I’ll have plenty to choose from!

I’m counting this book towards Week 3 of the Forgotten Histories Reading Challenge – Read a book with an LGBT protagonist.

Romola by George Eliot

Romola I’ll admit that I didn’t feel very enthusiastic about starting to read Romola. I had added it to my Classics Club list because I loved Middlemarch and because the Italian Renaissance setting sounded appealing to me. Then I came across some reviews that said it was very difficult to read, overly detailed and boring, and I began to wonder what I had let myself in for. Luckily, now that I’ve read the book, I can say that none of these things were big problems for me. Yes, it was challenging, and yes, the amount of historical and political detail was overwhelming, but none of that mattered because I was so caught up in the story and the lives of the characters.

Romola is set in Florence in the final years of the 15th century and I wonder if this could be one of the reasons it’s not more widely read as it isn’t what you would typically expect from a Victorian novel. There’s no doubt that Eliot must have thoroughly researched the setting and the historical background, although it sometimes seemed that she had been determined to include every little fact and detail she uncovered during that research. Apparently Anthony Trollope wrote to Eliot after reading the first instalment and praised her for her descriptions of Florence, ‘wonderful in their energy and in their accuracy’, but warned her not to ‘fire too much over the heads of your readers’. Well, a lot of it did go over my head, and although I loved the book overall I won’t pretend that I understood everything I read.

The title character, Romola, is the daughter of an elderly scholar, Bardo de’ Bardi. Romola’s brother has left home to join the church and Romola is doing her best to take his place in helping their father with his classical studies. This work does not really interest Romola, however, so when they are introduced to a young man called Tito Melema who agrees to become Bardi’s assistant, this seems to be the perfect solution.

Tito, a Greek scholar, has just arrived in Florence after surviving a shipwreck and is looking forward to building a new life and career for himself. When he learns that his adoptive father, Baldassarre, has been sold into slavery in Antioch and needs his assistance, Tito must decide whether to put his own comfort above his duty to his father. Meanwhile Romola is beginning to fall in love with Tito, but knows nothing of his relationship with Baldassarre – or of his entanglement with a pretty young Florentine girl called Tessa.

The story of Romola and Tito unfolds against the backdrop of a very important period in Florentine history. Piero de’ Medici has been driven from Florence as the French prepare to invade and religious fervour is sweeping through the city under the leadership of the Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola is an important character in Romola – along with Niccolò Machiavelli he is one of several real historical figures to appear in the novel – and is portrayed here as a complex human being with both good points and bad.

The fictional characters are even more interesting than the historical ones; the villain in this novel is the equal of almost any in Victorian fiction. He is particularly fascinating because when we first meet him he doesn’t appear to be villainous at all; his character undergoes a slow descent into deceit and treachery so that I went from liking him to loathing him. Romola sometimes feels more like a typical virtuous and dutiful Victorian heroine than a 15th century one (she reminded me of Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch) but I liked her and enjoyed watching her character develop.

I think how much you take away from Romola depends on how much effort you put in. You can look up every reference if you want to, or you can just be swept along by the story – like a lot of classics it works on more than one level. I certainly didn’t understand it all and I got very confused by the political intrigue towards the end of the book but as long as I could keep track of who was on which side, who was being betrayed and who was doing the betraying I was happy.

This hasn’t become a favourite classic but it’s one of the best I’ve read for a while. I was gripped by the plot, fascinated by the characters and loved the portrayal of Florence, its buildings, its art and culture and its people. Having only read Middlemarch, Silas Marner and now Romola so far, I’m looking forward to reading George Eliot’s other novels!

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus I love books set in Renaissance Italy but although Sarah Dunant has written three or four of them, this is the first one I’ve read. I had started to read her novel on the Borgias, Blood and Beauty, a year or two ago and struggled to get into it, so that put me off trying any of her other books for a while. Something keeps drawing me to Dunant’s books on the library shelf, though, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time to give her another try.

The Birth of Venus is not, as I’d originally expected, a novel based on the story behind the Botticelli painting of the same name. What the title does actually refer to could be debated, but it seems to me that it alludes to the ‘birth’ or awakening of the novel’s narrator as she falls in love for the first time. The name of the narrator is Alessandra Cecchi and she is the daughter of a prosperous Florentine cloth merchant.

At the beginning of the novel, Alessandra is not quite fifteen years old. Despite her quick brain and artistic talent, she has had to resign herself to the fact that, due to the conventions of 15th century society, she will have no option but to marry the man her parents have chosen for her. When her father returns from a business trip, bringing with him a young artist whom he has commissioned to paint the walls of the family chapel, Alessandra is fascinated. She is curious to see the painter’s work and to learn more about his methods, but she is even more intrigued by the painter himself. Who is this young man, this ‘orphan brought up in a monastery on the edge of the northern sea’?

As the story of Alessandra and the painter unfolds, so does the story of Florence. Beginning with the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the novel takes us through the subsequent disastrous reign of Piero de’ Medici, the rise to power of the Dominican friar Savonarola, and the growing threat of a French invasion. This is always a fascinating time and place to read about and I think Dunant does a particularly good job of bringing the setting to life, not just in describing the sights and sounds, but also in showing us how the mood of Florence changes as the city is gripped by Savonarola’s religious extremism.

For a thick book, this was quite a quick read, the sort where you become so swept along with the story you don’t realise how fast the pages are turning. My only problem was that I found Dunant’s decision to refer to the painter as ‘the painter’ throughout the entire book slightly annoying. I’m not quite sure why there really needed to be a mystery surrounding his identity. I felt that the lack of a name created a distance between the character and the reader – I expect this was probably intentional (maybe it wasn’t supposed to matter who he was; all that mattered was what he represented to Alessandra), but if so, it didn’t work for me.

While I can’t really say that I loved this book, I did enjoy it and am now happy to try Sarah Dunant’s other Renaissance Italy novels, In the Company of the Courtesan and Sacred Hearts (maybe I should even give Blood and Beauty another chance). When I finished The Birth of Venus I didn’t want to leave Medici Florence behind, so the next book I picked up was Romola by George Eliot, which is set in the same period and which I’m thoroughly enjoying.