Sins of the House of Borgia
Things have not been easy for Esther; expelled with her fellow Jews from her home in Spain, she first loses her mother and then is prodded (if not exactly forced) into the service of Lucrezia Borgia by a father who has emigrated to Italy to become banker to Pope Alexander. Things are complicated when Esther (now dubbed “La Violante” and converted to Christianity) falls inextricably in love with the near sociopathic Cesare Borgia, a dangerous man not only incapable of matching her depth of feeling, but whose relationship with his sister plunges Violante into further doubt and confusion.
Bower’s descriptive prose is sensual and elegant, which makes the rare flub (e.g., a courtier whose nose looks as if it were smashed by a football) more jarring. The story is slow-moving, but this allows for sight-seeing within the historical ambiance, and also for well-realized characterization. There is little polarization here; these are neither villains nor heroes, simply human beings, dynamic but selfish and very flawed. Despite the Italian sun and countryside, the story somehow manages an almost domestic/Gothic feel at times, as Violante navigates the claustrophobic confines of Lucrezia’s palazzos and tries to weather the storms caused by sickness, intrigue and personality conflict.
The effect the powerful Borgia family has on Violante and all those under their sphere of influence is not pretty to watch. Violante is a sharp observer, intelligent and practical, but for all that, she willingly succumbs to the force of personality of the Borgias—these people who use, destroy, and discard others without a backward glance. Violante throws herself to these wolves with her eyes wide open, destroying the sympathy the reader would otherwise feel for her, but her narration provides an interesting filter through which to view the scions of a powerful dynasty.