Having recently read two others books that touched on Lucrezia de Medici and her Medici brethren, I was extremely excited to jump into His Last Duchess. Unlike The Second Duchess (see our review), which painted Lucrezia as a wanton, rather callous woman, and Murder of a Medici Princess (see our review), which barely mentioned her as more than a tool in her family’s quest for further power and notoriety, His Last Duchess paints her as a sweet young woman who was married off to a man hungry to control her at any cost.
When the novel opens we find Lucrezia at sixteen years old, spending her days in games and play with her much beloved cousin, Giovanni. She is loved and sheltered by her powerful yet kind parents at their country home in Tuscany. Despite her mother’s apprehension that she is too young and naïve for marriage, she is nevertheless betrothed to Alfonso de Este, Duke of Ferrara, in hopes of calming the enmity between the Medici and Este houses. Lucrezia is excited for this new adventure and the opportunity to break free from her parent’s shadow and grow. Her childish illusions of what marriage would bring in Ferrara are dashed, however, when she finds Alfonso to be cold, distant and frightening. With only a former kitchen girl turned waiting woman, Catalina, for companionship, she finds herself just as confined in her new life as Duchess of Ferrara as she was as a child in Tuscany.
As their marriage progresses Alfonso finds that he is unable to consummate the marriage. He sees her as his beautiful possession but something keeps him from fully possessing her as he wants so badly to do. As he has no problems continuing his aggressive, brutish affair with his whore, Francesca, he assumes the problem lies with Lucrezia. He adamantly believes she is causing this and laughing with everyone she tells. When he learns that the Pope means to repossess his lands upon his death if he does not produce a legitimate heir, his belief that Lucrezia is setting out to destroy him intensifies.
As Lucrezia becomes more comfortable in her own skin and finds the love she does not get from her husband in the arms of Jacomo, the assistant to the famed painter Fra Pandolf who has been commissioned to paint not only a groundbreaking fresco but Lucrezia’s portrait, Alfonso spirals further into madness. He feels every smile she bestows on the lowliest servant is a direct affront to the Este name and is her way of mocking his inability to keep his lands safe with an heir. When the noise in his head become too loud to ignore, he is convinced the only way to solve the problem is to murder her.
When he enlists Francesca’s assistance in procuring the poison he needs, Francesca realizes he has finally lost all sanity. She seeks the help of Giovanni, Catalina, Jacomo and others who have come to love this sad little duchess to somehow save the girl from this madness. How will they be able to find a way to not only save her from immediate demise, but keep her safe from Alfonso’s powerful reach?
Gabrielle Kimm does a stellar job of keeping the tension and suspense mounting until the very end. Kimm does note that she veers from history quite a bit to keep the storyline flowing appropriately and does in fact do so. If you are able to look at His Last Duchess as a fictional story taking place in history instead of as a history lesson, than this is a must-read. If you are a stickler for historical fact in your storytelling than you might find yourself frustrated by the detours. I, personally, cannot wait to see what Gabrielle Kimm has next to offer.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son and pet fish. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Sourcebooks Landmark. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.