Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tour of Italy Review: The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas

From the Back Cover:

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.

My Thoughts:

When Barbara leaves Austria and the court of her brother, the Holy Roman Emperor, she's already heard the rumors that her betrothed murdered his first wife, but she's determined to marry the Duke of Ferrara anyway. At twenty-six, she's old for a first-time bride, and she's grateful to Alfonso d'Este for taking her out from under her brother's rule and giving her a court of her own to rule over. She's determined to be the best duchess she can be, and to forget all about the beautiful, young first duchess, Lucrezia de Medici, who has been in her grave for three years.

But Lucrezia's shadow hangs over Barbara. Literally. Lucrezia herself, in spirit form, still lives at court. This threw me at first, but Lucrezia soon proves to be a delightful addition to the narrative. Where Barbara is mature and serious, Lucrezia is childish and playful. She's spiteful, too. She's got the dirt on everybody and she's ready to talk. After all, she's had nothing to do but watch the inhabitants of the court for the past three years. And everyone is still talking about Lucrezia, despite the duke's orders not to do so. Everywhere Barbara turns someone is there to whisper about her. Some are spiteful, some are well-meaning, and many are just drawn to gossip and scandal. Barbara becomes obsessed with the first duchess, who was so unlike herself. Unaware that Lucrezia is anxiously following her every move, Barbara delves into the events surrounding Lucrezia's death, and discovers that there are many people who may have wanted the first duchess dead and gone, and there's a reason the duke is the number one suspect.

Like Barbara, I was drawn to the duke right away. Alfonso is a hard egg to crack. He's solemn, proud, and arrogant. To call him a control freak is an understatement. He's ambitious to the point of obsession. He has an intense rivalry with the de Medicis, and his marriage to the emperor's sister is a source of great pride to him, and a strategic move on his part. He wants a duchess who will help him become a grand duke. He wants a duchess who will preside over his court with strength, intelligence, and respect. In other words, a wife that makes him look good...and who is all the things his first duchess was not. But underneath all of that lives a passionate, sensitive man. A man devoted to the arts and the improvement of his domains. A man impressed by intelligence and strength of character. He is a man whose secrets are revealed by the actions he takes rather than the words he speaks, and I found myself as hungry as Barbara was for him to reveal more of that man.

When he discovers his new wife has been investigating his dead wife, he is furious. But he's smart, too. He realizes that his new duchess, with her fierce intelligence and inquisitive nature, will not be satisfied until she has answers, and in a surprising move he allows her to continue her quest to uncover the truth about Lucrezia's death, so long as he accompanies her. Does he want to learn the truth for himself and finally put his first duchess behind him? Or is this a move calculated to keep Barbara from learning too much? As Barbara draws ever closer to uncovering the truth, someone becomes determined to stop her. Will she realize how much danger she's in before it's too late?

Ms. Loupas has taken one of history's mysteries and crafted a compelling, suspenseful tale of dark secrets and dark deeds set amidst a glittering court known for its sumptuous parties and lavish lifestyles. I could not put this book down as the truth about Lucrezia was slowly uncovered, both by Barbara's determined investigation and by the little secrets Lucrezia herself revealed as she shadowed Barbara's every move. The story is impeccably written, with a bit of a gothic feel; the characters are complex and intriguing, and Ms. Loupas is a master at building suspense. In her author's note she says that she'd like this book to be the first in a series of mysteries, and I for one, would welcome that!

My Rating:  4 Stars out of 5


3 comments:

  1. Isn't this a great book? I loved Lucrezia's voice as well. Thought it a very clever addition to the story.

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  2. I can't wait to read this -- I've got it on my TBR -- looks like such fun! I read a fantastic modern day spin on this set up a few years ago, Capri File by Amanda Prantera.

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