The Second Duchess

Written by Elizabeth Loupas
Review by Monica E. Spence

Have you ever read a book that you wish you had written? Have you ever read a book that you wish did not end? For me, The Second Duchess is that book.

The author’s debut novel, based on Robert Browning’s famous poem “My Last Duchess,” focuses on Barbara of Austria, daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. From the start of her marriage to Duke Alfonso d’Este, Barbara is obsessed with curiosity about Alfonso’s late first wife, Lucrezia de Medici.

Barbara is drawn with depth and compassion. She is a clever, ugly duckling princess who must come to grips with being a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner in her new home. Her deepest fear, that she may be the bride of a murderer, drives her to solve the mystery of the death of her predecessor — at risk of her own life.

Alfonso, brooding, dark and powerful, lives with his own ghosts—that of his father and his dead wife. He walls himself away from his new wife and tries to brutalize her into submission, but he finds he cannot break Barbara’s spirit.

The ghost of Lucrezia de Medici is the linking character throughout the story. Her spirit, awaiting her eternal fate, is neither saintly nor idealized. Her voice is very different from that of the determined and driven Barbara. The Medici princess comes across as a willful and spoiled child who is unable to see her mistakes until it is too late.

The wonderful research and the setting of 16th-century Ferrara serve to flesh out the plot into a fascinating historical mystery. I thoroughly enjoyed The Second Duchess and recommend it to all who love a good historical mystery with a well-developed romantic component. I look forward to Elizabeth Loupas’s next book.