The Second Duchess
by Elizabeth Loupas
Release Date: March 1, 2011
2011 New American Library
Softcover Edition; 387 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Review Copy from Publisher
4.5 / 5 Stars
In a city-state known for magnificence, where love affairs and conspiracies play out amidst brilliant painters, poets and musicians, the powerful and ambitious Alfonso d'Este, duke of Ferrara, takes a new bride. Half of Europe is certain he murdered his first wife, Lucrezia, the luminous child of the Medici. But no one dares accuse him, and no one has proof-least of all his second duchess, the far less beautiful but delightfully clever Barbara of Austria.
At first determined to ignore the rumors about her new husband, Barbara embraces the pleasures of the Ferrarese court. Yet wherever she turns she hears whispers of the first duchess's wayward life and mysterious death. Barbara asks questions-a dangerous mistake for a duchess of Ferrara. Suddenly, to save her own life, Barbara has no choice but to risk the duke's terrifying displeasure and discover the truth of Lucrezia's death-or she will share her fate.
The Second Duchess was completely mesmerizing and captivating right from the start. I fell in love completely with this decadent world of power that Ms. Loupas set before us, totally enthralled by the sights and sounds of Renaissance Italy and its world of wealth and power. The descriptions of daily life, clothing, routines, furniture, artwork, and other elements of this world, were fascinating and I soaked it up completely. The fact that I absolutely love the world of the Borgias and the de Medicis and the Estes certainly helped and I thought this was a worthy addition to the literature that already abounds about this period.
Archduchess Barbara of Austria, daughter to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, is a woman after my own heart. A deeply religious woman due to her religious upbringing, she embraced her marriage and her new life with enthusiasm and excitement, if a little trepidation. Surrounding her everywhere she went were rumours of the first Duchess, Lucrezia de Medici, who died under suspicious circumstances a mere two years after her marriage to Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara. Having a will of her own, and an obstinate nature, Barbara set out to find the truth, to protect herself as well as to sate her natural curiosity, and only managed to irk the duke into temper, learning that being Archduchess means absolutely nothing in Ferrara. Submitting to her Lord and husband takes precedence, and this presents a difficult choice for the independent Barbara who secretly seethes with anger and fear against her restraints. For me, I was continuously shocked by some of the ways women were treated during this time period, sometimes being beaten by their husbands for disobeying them, and for having independent natures. Although I have studied a lot of history, being a modern women, it is so hard to reconcile this concept as it is so different to what we have today. To be at the mercy of someone's whim would be difficult and frightening, particularly if the Lord were not very merciful. Barbara had a lot of courage and a will of iron, something that really endeared me to her, and made me very sympathetic to her cause; I felt so much empathy for Barbara and recognized the genius in Ms. Loupas's writing that allowed this to come to pass.
The mystery itself was also rather intriguing. I knew about Lucrezia de Medici, only in passing, but I did read some of the controversy surrounding her death long before this novel. While the mystery intertwines many of the events, for me it was the court intrigues that were the most fascinating and deadly. How Barbara was able to put up with all of the intrigues, day in and day out, is beyond me, because just reading some of the things that were swirling around her and the duke, were giving me a headache. The world that was created was so believable, I felt like I was right there, part of the court. And the lack of privacy, and having people constantly around you all of the time, would drive one absolutely crazy.
The only thing in this novel that bothered me, and only just slightly, was the use of the immobili, for advancement of the story. While I understand the purpose for its use, I sort of wish it hadn't been included, as I felt it wasn't really necessary; the story and the mystery were great enough that readers could figure out a lot of the ideas without the help of the immobili. One of the benefits from its use, that I could see, would be to give us a sense of Lucrezia's personality, something we would not have gleaned as much had it not been used. I'm just not sure it was necesssary.
The Second Duchess takes a look at one of the lasting mysteries of the Renaissance, crafting a compelling tale set amidst a glittering court full of intrigue and deadly secrets. I had a hard time putting the book down, and was caught up in Barbara's investigation and the truths that were unveiled. Ms. Loupas's writing style is masterful, creating a novel that was suspenseful, complex, and peopled with quirky and difficult characters. I was so glad to read that she would like to continue writing about the adventures of Barbara and Alfonso in further novels. For anyone interested in Renaissance Italy, and the life of the rich and powerful that includes a real-life mystery, then I highly recommend this novel.