I am…conflicted over this book. I had some issues with it, and they were very much “me” issues, so I had a hard time rating it. But then I figured I should just do what I always do and grade it based on my enjoyment. I did enjoy it, but I’m going to detail the “me” issues so you can see if they’ll bother you too.
When I picked this book up I didn’t know anything about it other than what I read on the back blurb. Part of the fun for me in reading historical fiction is becoming intrigued by facts in the book and researching to see if they’re true. I find it really interesting to see the little tidbits that the author found during research and included to make it authentic. You might find this odd because I run the risk of spoiling myself, but I can’t see how I’d spoil myself on historical record. LOL.
During the book Barbara has a painting done of her. The painter, Fra Pandolf, also did one of the first duchess and I was really hoping they were real so I could see them. I googled them and found that Fra Pandolf wasn’t a real person. He was a fictional character taken from Robert Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess. This really threw me for a loop until I talked to another friend who told me that the whole book was based on the poem. So the painter and the sculptor mentioned in the book were pulled directly from there.
I don’t know why that bothered me so much, but it did. I know that I’m going to get some fiction with my history in a book like this (of course), but I was not expecting to read fiction based on fiction. I just wish I could have known that going in because it continued to nag at me through the book. Once I figured out that I was reading characters based on a poem that was based on real people I didn’t bother to google anymore. I just lost enthusiasm for it. This won’t bother everyone, though. The same friend who clued me into the fact that the book was based around a poem thought it was pretty cool. So different strokes for different folks and all.
There was also a very unwanted pov that was featured in every chapter. I won’t get into whose pov it was—because I don’t want to spoil anything—but it never grew on me. I found it clumsy and rather irritating in an otherwise interesting book. I just thought that it was a rather lame way to keep the reader interested in the mystery. I also thought it was included as a convenient way to dump facts and outside knowledge without making them flow with the story.
Another thing that bothered me but was very much a “me” thing was the relationship between Barbara and the duke. I don’t think I can think of another book that I’ve read like this that has tried to sell me so much on the relationship. The crazy thing is that the author almost did! But then the duke would crack the whip again and we would be back to square one. The duke was not an evil man, but he was very much a man of his time. He was the master and his wife was his property. She didn’t breathe without his say-so.
That’s where the whole “me” thing comes in. I can’t complain about historical accuracy in a historical like this. That would be incredibly stupid. But I also had an incredibly hard time reading about Barbara falling for a guy like that. If it hadn’t been such a large focus of the book it wouldn’t have bothered me so much. But the duke could be charming in a cold sort of way and I found myself being drawn in only to get pushed back out once he bent her to his will.
I guess I’m just used to reading biographies and historical fiction where the heroine never fell in love with the jerk who mistreated her. She may have been stuck with him, but she made herself happy in other ways. It was hard to adjust to a woman who accepted her situation despite hating Alfonso at times.
You might be having a bad feeling about this by now. But wait! I’m about to get to the good stuff.
This book was incredibly readable. It started a tad slow, but I quickly got sucked in. Even when I wished I could reach through the book and throat punch the duke, I still couldn’t stop reading. Barbara was really easy for me to like. I liked that she wasn’t a hysterical ninny. She was fully aware of her position and her husband’s consequence and didn’t let anyone run their mouth with rumors. She was a nice duchess, but she was also firm and knew who was at the top of the pecking order. I liked that about her. She felt real.
I was really into the mystery of what really happened to the first duchess. I liked watching all the facts slowly reveal themselves. Especially about the duke’s interactions with her. I didn’t know what would happen and how things would resolve until the end. I liked being surprised by it. Speaking of the end… It rocked! The end was fast paced and I loved getting to know the truth of everything. Plus, what happened to Barbara and the duke’s reaction to it was very awesome. I really think it was my favorite part of the story because everything flowed together so well. Very nice.
I also really enjoyed the secondary characters we got to meet. Watching the political games and hidden barbs thrown around was really interesting. Even unlikable characters were interesting to get to know.
See why I was so conflicted? There was so much to enjoy, even with the parts that bugged me. I was pretty set on giving this 3.5 hearts until I got to the dramatic ending. I really enjoyed that part and it swayed my grade. So this gets 4 hearts from me after all!
“His reaction had been nothing but pride, of course–his self-importance had been stung by his friend’s open contempt for the Duchess of Ferrara, and at the same time he had been gratified by that lady’s dignified response. The humiliation of Barbara, a living and breathing woman, his wife, was nothing to him.”