It is Renaissance Florence, and Lucrezia de’ Medici is married off at the age of 13 to Alfonso, 23, the dashing, wealthy Duke of Ferrara. She’d met him once, when he was engaged to her older sister and he passed her on a walk. Their eyes met and they both felt cupid’s arrow. When the sister dies, Lucrezia gets the call.
The plot line and characters sound straight out of some Mills-and-Boon-type romance but the comparison ends there. This is a superbly written novel with gloriously textured descriptions and some pretty luscious history, and the hate him/love him of popular romance is reversed; the sweet romancer turning into a chilling murderer. The child bride can’t make sense of her husband, the dashing Duke Alfonzo who is intuitive and caring to Lucrezia one minute, and brutally cruel the next. The family needs an heir – as they always do, without ever having a plan B – and Alfonzo takes to his task with dedication. Gentle and caring at first, and then not so much. He is fighting to maintain his throne and his family is part of the power play.
There are extraordinary palaces to explore in this book (and I get the feeling they are meticulously researched), pet tigers, dresses like fortresses of silk. I had to look up lots of words, which I did with pleasure: tavola, cintura, delizia. The child duchess sits for a court artist who paints her according to the desires of her husband, but within this artifice there are aspects of the painting that Lucrezia feels have captured her very soul, and she suspects these details were painted not by the court painter, but another.
Life in court is described with great deliberation but all the dazzle is not the important thing. O’Farrell somehow makes the reader, like Lucrezia, give attention with one ear only, the other always alert for a foot on the stairs, or a whisper in a corridor. As the sister of the Duke learns (and her lover, the poor fool), the consequences of dropping one’s guard are more horrific that can be imagined.
I was on edge reading this, the stakes felt so high. The 1550s was not a good time to be a woman – there are not many options open when your own family pretty much sell you on. And right to the very end I wondered if I was reading the truth, or if I was being spun a line. Surely not? Lucrezia was so doomed. The ending is magnificent and horrifying. If you feel the book flags a bit in the middle – and it does feel a long book – do hang in there.
Much better than Hamnet!