la petite mort sanglante

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To help move along my writing and spark my interest again, I decided to pick up Lucrezia Borgia by John Faunce. This is his debut, and only, novel, though his bio included in the book, published in 2003, indicates that he has written television movies and works as a screenwriter in LA.

I debated about including my thoughts on this novel for re: read pages because no matter what I say, Faunce wrote a book that got published, which I have yet to do, and because I wanted to focus on writing that impressed me with its craft and, as you have probably guessed, this novel does not.

Despite my interest in the Borgia family (they play an important role in my own novel), I have had a difficult time finding a perfectly satisfying read about this notorious clan. The gossip about the potentially incestuous relationships between siblings seems to be too juicy to not play up in one way or another, and too many authors lose their place trying to weave these tidbits into their narratives. Faunce is no different.

Interjections of Greek and Latin meant to showcase Lucrezia as a unique mind instead of just a unique body feel slapped in more to show the author’s knowledge than his character’s. The moments of humour meant to bring levity to more serious situations generally fall flat. I’m also not sure what he intended by turning Cesare Borgia into a temper-tantrum throwing adult, complete with stomping feet and high pitched voice. Is this humour again? Is it meant to show that he is no better than his sister who shed tears in an attempt to avoid her first marriage? It is difficult to reconcile the Cesare of Lucrezia’s admiration and the captain of the Holy Army to this whiny child-man. But the worst offence is the treatment of sexuality.

Lucrezia is meant to be seen as a golden beauty from a very young age. Her value, according to her family, comes from her looks. It is one reason why she can be bartered in marriage three times in her life despite concerns about the trustworthiness of her family. But her sexuality and the role of incest in her family are so poorly executed that Faunce loses any credibility he may have built up with historical detail.

Lucrezia’s second husband, Alphonso, whom she loved, is beaten near to death in front of her eyes and she is nearly murdered herself. But Lucrezia, while surrounded by her attackers and cradling her husband’s head, isn’t overcome by fear and grief but by memories of their lovemaking:

“Remember me.” I called as loudly as I could to Alphonso, though I’m now certain what felt a yell was only a longing whisper. “Remember that even in Heaven no one will ever love you the way I do….Remember me,” I whispered again to my husband. “If you forget my voice, remember my body, the ways it loved you.”

Lucrezia’s odd way of experiencing trauma continues as she cleans Alphonso’s wounds. While washing blood from Alphonso’s body, she imagines Mary Magdalene giving Jesus a blow job. Yep. Nothing like blood on your hands to get you thinking about Jesus and oral sex. But Faunce isn’t finished yet. Alphonso still needs to die. In his final hours, Alphonso, who has been nursed back to life by a fiercely dedicated Lucrezia, makes love to his wife, but their post-coital rest is interrupted by Cesare, who has talked his way past guards at the door. He begs Alphonso’s forgiveness, admitting that he sent the attackers that caused his near death; however, once they are relaxed Cesare turns and attacks Alphonso himself. Lucresia attempts to defend him and is hurt in the act. In Faunce’s telling, this is a total turn-on:

Alphonso and I were naked. More blood kept flowing from my cut hands. An image formed in my mind…In my mind we seemed a strange, desperate ménage a trois. But I confess our threesome was oddly attractive to me, unbidden, nightmare daydream.

Ugh. If this passage hadn’t occurred near the end of the novel, I would have tossed the book aside completely. Faunce teases the reader with incest but never full commits his heroine. In another (more well-written) book about the siblings, Blood and Beauty, author Sarah Dunant puts the incestuous leaning fully on Cesare’s shoulders. While Faunce also hints that Cesare, in a kind of madness, is in love with his sister, passages such as the one above allow Faunce to indulge in sibling love scenes without really dirtying his main character (I won’t even get in to Lucrezia’s pleasure in remembering hearing her parents have sex in the next room).

Overall this book didn’t provide any insight into the Borgia family. It felt like a shallow interpretation dressed up with sex and Latin.

I hope I will do better.

All quoted passages from Faunce, John. Lucrezia Borgia. 2003. Three Rivers Press, New York.

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