The Family

Written by Carol Gino Mario Puzo
Review by James Hawking

The title of this novel evokes The Godfather both as a marketing device and an indication of the tone to be taken. This gangster story takes place in Italy during the late 15th and early 16th centuries at the time of the papacy of Alexander VI. This Borgia family consists of a pope so handsome that most women flush upon meeting him, and with illegitimate children so attractive one could hardly blame them for their enthusiastic incest. There were also a few ascetic saints, but they do not figure in this story.

Like most historical novelists, Puzo picks a side and resolves the thorny problems over which historians still argue. Readers of this book will know with fictional certainty who killed Juan Borgia and which relative fathered Lucrezia’s infant. Lucrezia comes off sympathetically, in love with both her brother Cesare and her second husband and suffering the inevitable conflict when one tries to murder the other, and the other retaliates. Younger brother Jofre figures more prominently in the novel than he does in histories of the period, since Puzo chooses to blame him for everything from murder to organizing the party where twenty naked courtesans served chestnuts in the pope’s residence.

The book’s dominant figure, Alexander VI, shows brilliance in playing off Milan, Naples and France while maintaining the support of Spain. Irresistible to women and loyal to his children, he longs for the unification of Italy. In one scene he solicits a substantial bribe to name a man’s granddaughter a saint, but he vows to use the money to finance a crusade. This posthumous novel combines scandalous but plausible history with Puzo’s flair for making unspeakable characters seem noble.