In the Name of the Family

Written by Sarah Dunant
Review by Lorraine Norwood

Sarah Dunant is obsessed with the Borgias. But it’s a good obsession.

The Borgias are the family we love to hate. They’re manipulative, vindictive, lustful, passionate, and brutal. But in the cutthroat world of early 16th-century Rome, they’re the family in charge. Have they just gotten bad PR for the last 600 years? Or were they really as bad as their reputation? Dunant would say yes and no respectively.

Originally from Spain, the Borgias consist of Rodrigo, the powerful patriarch who is now on the papal throne as Pope Alexander VI, and his illegitimate children: Cesare, the leader of a mercenary army, and Lucrezia, the family marriage pawn. To maintain the Borgia dynasty and increase their fortune, they live in a world of constant intrigue. Bribery, nepotism, and treachery are their family values. Shifting allies in surrounding Italian city-states are their political bedfellows—and enemies. Yet such is Dunant’s talent as a writer that when the House of Borgia falls, we feel sympathy for the family, especially the grasping patriarch Pope Alexander, whose dynasty is doomed.

In the Name of the Family is her follow-up to the first Borgia book, Blood & Beauty, but this second novel can be read on its own. Rather than focus on the notorious nature of the Borgias, Dunant explores their motivations and their humanness. She brings to life the real Borgias, writing them as fully rounded characters rather than caricatures. The novel is filled with rich detail, the fruit of deep research into every aspect of Renaissance Italy, although sometimes an abundance of factual details bogs down the narrative. Readers who like to delve into the more salacious legends about the Borgias, e.g., prostitutes, poisonings, and all-night orgies, will be disappointed. But for readers who like their historical fiction to be erudite as well as entertaining, In the Name of the Family is top choice.