Today we look at three historical novels about very strange families. Taking things chronologically, first up is Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty, about the very real, and very twisted Borgias of Renaissance Italy. Wikipedia lists among their crimes “adultery, simony, theft, bribery, and murder (especially by arsenic poisoning).” I quite like that parenthetical at the end there. In any case, the Borgias have been fascinating us for several hundred years, most recently in the eponymous Showtime series, and their hold over our imaginations seems in no danger of flagging. My favorite use of the Borgias in popular culture is Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire (of Wicked fame) which retells the story of Snow White with Lucrezia Borgia taking the part of the wicked stepmother. Dunant’s novel takes a more strictly historical tack, looking at the period of the Borgias’ early years of power, starting with a Borgia being installed as Pope. There should be more than enough salacious scandal to keep the most jaded of teen readers interested.
And speaking of scandal, our reviewer told me of Janice Clark’s The Rathbones that “I think some teens will like the nautical aspect and incest,” which is a fabulous one line (or even four word) summary of the novel. Clark’s novel takes place in the mid-19th century, and centers on the young scion of a New England sailing family with much scandal in its past. As the wide range of comparisons in the review below show (Jack London, Herman Melville, VC Andrews, Rick Yancey), this is a complex novel with possible appeal to many different types of teen readers.
And last we have a historical novel looking at the ancient times of 1960s New York. Cathleen Schine’s Fin & Lady two half-siblings, both orphans who make the reader question, as our reviewer puts it, “ what it means to be a family,” although if they’ve been reading the other novels reviewed here, perhaps the strange but loving relationships of Schine’s novel will be a relief from the fire-works of the Borgias and the Rathbones.
DUNANT, Sarah. Blood & Beauty: The Borgias. 528p. Random House. July 2013. Tr $27. ISBN 9781400069293; ebook ISBN 9780679603863.
Adult/High School-It is 1492. New worlds are being explored. Great artists are creating masterpieces and science is exploding with new discoveries. It is a time of great change. Italy is a mixture of family run city-states with Rome in the center and Pope Alexander VI orchestrating the interplay among them. It is a world of violence, greed, war, and alliances built upon marriages made and dismantled, as well as payments received and “accidental” deaths incurred. Blood & Beauty opens as Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia ascends to the papacy as Alexander VI. He is not only the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but also of the large and ambitious Borgia family. His children, Cesare, Juan, Jofre, and Lucrezia, are young teens in a world in which their sole education is learning how to create power and wealth for the family through statecraft, guile, and warfare. Cesare, handsome and brave-cold as steel-is the family strategist and political power player who has no qualms in ridding himself of those who stand in the way of the family. Lucrezia’s role is to be beautiful and marry well. Her marriages are manipulated by Cesare and Alexander, who dispatch her husbands as they become obstacles, forcing Lucrezia to realize that family loyalty has its price and that maybe she, too, should step up and take charge of her own life. History-loving teens will find much to enjoy in this rich tapestry of renaissance Italy. The incongruity of a pope having not only a life-long mistress but also a large family gives a fascinating look into the dynamics of Catholicism in its time, and the impact that this larger-than-life family made on history.-Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
CLARK, Janice. The Rathbones. 384p. Doubleday. 2013. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780385536936.
Adult/High School–The Rathbones have sailing in their blood. Fifteen-year-old Mercy knows this–she can sense creatures beneath the water and can tie knots better than a sailor. When a stranger appears and scares her, she and her uncle Mordecai must flee their ancestral home to the safer waters off the coast of Connecticut. As they travel, Mercy learns more about her strange and tightly woven family. Her great-great grandfather collected wives to supply his whaling ships with strong sailing sons–and that’s not the strangest familial twist in this gothic novel. Mercy’s story takes place in 1859, and she learns about her family’s history in chapters from those time periods in the early days of whaling. The beautifully designed novel combines the nautical details of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf with the occasional perversion of a Flowers in the Attic-like twist (S & S, 2005). The romantic prose evokes the spirit of Moby-Dick and similar tales of epic journeys. Readers can smell the salt air and sense Mercy’s utter confusion as she unravels the secrets of her ancestors. Give this to teens who enjoyed the style of Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist (S & S, 2009) and who don’t mind oddities in their historical fiction.–Sarah Hill, Paris Cooperative High School, Paris, IL
SCHINE, Cathleen. Fin & Lady. 272p. Sarah Crichton: Farrar. 2013. Tr $26. ISBN 9780374154905.
Adult/High School–Fin, 11, is orphaned after the death of his mother. In swoops Lady, his beautiful half sister who, as his new guardian, vows to take care of him. Thirteen years his senior, she, too, is an orphan. So begins their unusual life together in 1964 New York City. Lady is full of contradictions, at times tender and solicitous, at times inattentive and selfish. In spite of her flaws, Fin loves her fiercely and is often placed in the role of her protector. She is surrounded by suitors, but Lady’s dissatisfaction with her life is vividly drawn and unfolds within the context of the turmoil of the 1960s. A unique and effective means to learn more about the characters is woven throughout via the books they read and share. Lady disappears on her 28th birthday, leaving Fin feeling betrayed and angry. When she sends for him, she is living on Capri and has fallen madly in love. Thus begins another chapter in their relationship wherein Fin recognizes that for so long Lady had to work hard to live unfettered. She is now radiant and calm and pregnant. However, her notion of her future with her lover is not to be and, in a sad twist, Fin, now 18, becomes his young niece’s guardian. Teens will easily be transported to another time and place via memorable characters and narrative details. Schine’s droll humor will keep readers laughing out loud, and they will be enchanted by this well-crafted novel while pondering the question of what it means to be a family.–Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA