Monday, September 1, 2008

Book of Love

By Sarah Bower

When I reviewed Sarah Bower's Needle in the Blood last year I felt then, and still do, that it was one of the best historical novels I had read since Kathryn by Anya Seton which every woman of my age, in the UK anyway, seemed to have read when they were 15 and were totally overcome by. (This has got to be one of the worst constructed sentences ever, but never mind...). I tend to judge all other historical novels by the Katherine yardstick and Needle certainly measured up (sorry about the sewing pun, totally unintentional). When I started her second novel, The Book of Love, I was a little worried. Would it be as good? Would I like it? Had I perhaps gone over the top with my Needle ravings?

Well, the answers to these questions are Yes, Yes and No.

Had saved BOL for a weekend when I knew I would have plenty of time to sit down and immerse myself in the story and, apart from having to go and get a new computer and all the hassles attached thereto, spend two days in the world of the Borgias and 15th century Italy. I will admit to being biased in my crush on Cesare Borgia as I first fell in love with him when I read the three Jean Plaidy books devoted to this family back in my long lost teenage years and this fascination has never totally left me.

OK so where to begin? The narrator of the story is La Violante, a Jewess converted to the Christian faith, who becomes a lady in waiting to Lucrezia Borgia. Her birth name is Esther Sarfarti and she and her family were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon (this scenario was the background for another stupendous historical saga The Cathedral by the Sea, reviewed by me a month or two ago). Esther's father was banker to the Borgias and it was he who urged her to convert to Christianity and leave her family in order to secure her future.
If you ask most people what they know about the Borgias the most common reaction is "Ah, yes didn't they hold dinner parties and poison all the guests?" Films have been made about them, an ill fated TV series (who can ever forget Adolfo Cieli on the BBC in the UK some 25 years ago, excruciatingly bad) and an opera by Donizetti. This is one of those historical myths which have grown up over the years, entrenched in fact by constant repetition. The Borgias were not exactly the kind of family you would like to have living next door, but not quite as bad as we are led to believe. Judging their behaviour by modern day standards is a pointless exercise. If we lived in a country where each state fought for supremacy and power as Italy did at this time and we had to live by our wits and talents and resort to stratagems which seem unacceptable, merely to stay alive and keep our head on our shoulders, we would view life differently.

As the story unfolds La Violante, Esther's given nickname, accompanies her mistress to Ferrara where Lucrezia has secured an advantageous marriage to Alfonso D'este, Duke of Ferrara (pictured right). Before the departure from Rome, La Violante has met Cesare:

"I knew in less than the space of a breath, his face was the prism though which I would see the whole world from now on, the yardstick by which I would measure the beauty of every face. And that he understood my feelings, and that for this moment, if for no other, his beauty was a gift reserved only for me".

Fascinating, promiscuous, cruel, brave, dashing and endowed with a powerful sexual aura, totally irresistible, she is overwhelmed by a lifelong passion for him, bearing a son who is taken away from her in a brutal betrayal which breaks her heart.

When reviewing a book such as this, I try to avoid cliches but it is difficult 'teeming and pulsating with life', 'a sprawling canvas', these phrases fit the bill beautifully and I set them down here knowing just how hackneyed they are. Reading the Book of Love is like looking at every painting of Renaissance Italy you have ever seen. Scenes pass across the inner eye, full of dazzling colour, warmth and vitality. The political infighting, the jockeying for power, the panic when the Pope, Alexander Borgia dies, and the rush to secure the family's position; the clothes, silks, satins, gold thread; the jewels, diamonds, emeralds, pearls and rubies; golden Venetian masks studded with precious gems; the perfumes, jasmine, rose, orange; the poetry of the Italian language, even the names of the states roll off the tongue - Mantua, Padua, Ferrara, Urbino. Then the contrast of the squalor and the filth of the peasants and their lives, the cruelty of the treatment of the Jews who live from day to day never sure of their place or their security but still clinging to their religious customs in the face of adversity.

"I knew these people, they were the same people I had shared the festivals with as a child...the older girls and their mothers would exchange their modest, even drab clothes for striped silks and slashed velvets and head scarves tinkling with gold coins. Tableware of wood and horn would be replaced with silver and glass, and there would be dishes coloured with saffron and turmeric, fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg and the distillation of orange flowers"

I am not going to tell you anything about the story as I want everyone to read this book for themselves with no clues from me as to its ultimate outcome. Suffice it to say that La Violante's life, so closely entwined with that of the Borgias is full of love and heartbreak and despair with a shattering discovery in the final chapters which left me with mouth agape as she learned the truth of the intrigue and deceit practiced upon her by Lucrezia and the family to whom she has given her love and loyalty. Nearly 500 pages of riveting reading and I shut the book up with a huge sigh and deep regret when I came to the end of Esther's story. As with Needle, so with Book of Love, much though I wanted to read on I kept putting the book down to make it last longer. I am in the envious position at the moment of ending each book review with the words I Loved this Book. I feel like a gold prospector who has hit a rich seam and cannot believe her luck. Long may it continue. The Book of Love is a nugget of the finest gold and is on my short list already for my Book of the Year.

Glittering, gorgeous, compelling and stunning, Sarah Bower has done it again.

Can't wait for the next one.........

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