The Barnes & Noble Review
After a visit to the Vatican in 1983, Mario Puzo, bestselling author of The Godfather and Omerta, "was so enchanted by the look, the feel and food of Italy, so taken by its history," Carol Gino explains, "that he wanted to write a novel about it." Nearly 20 years in the making, The Family is that novel.
Set in Rome in the last years of the 15th century, Puzo's final book (completed by Gino, his companion for many years) is an absorbing, highly entertaining, fictional account of the rise and rule -- and eventual fall -- of that notorious first family of dysfunction during the Renaissance, the Borgias. Fast-paced and well researched, The Family -- in its effort to make such scandalous characters as the Borgias more human -- may well be the most ambitious novel of Puzo's career.
Cardinal Roderigo Borgia is charismatic and handsome, a born leader and a perfidious man of the cloth who ascends to the papacy as Pope Alexander VI in 1492, when Italian city-states are competing for land and the Vatican is competing for souls. He is also the loving father of four children, two of whom become pawns in their father's implacable drive for power. Cesare, Roderigo's oldest son, grows from an insecure cardinal to a fierce military leader; and Lucrezia, Roderigo's beautiful, seductive daughter -- and her father's favorite (not to mention her brother's incestuous bedmate) -- becomes the marriage link that unites nations and divides hearts. Throughout Roderigo's wheeling and dealing, the Renaissance is in full swing as religion competes against humanism and the Church seeks autonomous control of what will one day become a united Italy. As in E. L. Doctrow's Ragtime and Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil, historical figures pepper the narrative. Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci (whose military inventions help Cesare kick some serious tail), and Ferdinand and Isabella all make guest appearances, though at times they seem more like window dressing than actual characters.
While this blood-is-thicker-than-water tale is more summative than explorative (you don't really get into the heads of the Borgias as well as you do the Corleones), Puzo still knows how to tell a good story. The Family is an energetic novel, filled with enthusiasm and affection for the subject matter and the characters. Puzo's swan song may not be his finest work, but it is a robust, passionate love letter to a land, a history, and a culture that defined him as a writer and a man. (Stephen Bloom)
Read an Excerpt
The golden rays off the summer sun warmed the cobblestone streets of Rome as Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia walked briskly from the Vatican to the three-story stucco house on the Piazza de Merlo where he'd come to claim three of his young children: his sons Cesare and Juan and his daughter Lucrezia, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. On this fortuitous day the vice-chancellor to the Pope, the second most powerful man in the Holy Roman Catholic Church, felt especially blessed.
At the house of their mother, Vanozza Cattanei, he found himself whistling happily. As a son of the church he was forbidden to marry, but as a man of God he felt certain that he knew the Good Lord's plan. For did not the Heavenly Father create Eve to complete Adam, even in Paradise? So did it not follow that on this treacherous earth filled with unhappiness, a man needed the comfort of a woman even more? He'd had three previous children when he was a young bishop, but these last children he had sired, those of Vanozza, held a special place in his heart. They seemed to ignite in him the same high passions that she had. And even now, while they were still so young, he envisioned them standing on his shoulders, forming a great giant, helping him to unite the Papal States and extend the Holy Roman Catholic Church far across the world.
Over the years, whenever he had come to visit, the children always called him "Papa," seeing no compromise in his devotion to them and his loyalty to the Holy See. They saw nothing strange about the fact he was a cardinal and their father too. For didn't Pope Innocent's son and daughter often parade through the streets of Rome for celebrations with great ceremony?
Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia had been with his mistress, Vanozza, for more than ten years, and he smiled when he thought how few women had brought him such excitement and kept his interest for so long. Not that Vanozza had been the only woman in his life, for he was a man of large appetites in all worldly pleasures. But she had been by far the most important. She was intelligent, to his eye beautiful -- and someone he could talk to about earthly and heavenly matters. She had often given him wise counsel, and in return he had been a generous lover and a doting father to their children.
Vanozza stood in the doorway of her house and smiled bravely as she waved good-bye to her three children.
One of her great strengths now that she had reached her fortieth year was that she understood the man who wore the robes of the cardinal. She knew he had a burning ambition, a fire that flamed in his belly that would not be extinguished. He also had a military strategy for the Holy Catholic Church that would expand its reach, political alliances that would strengthen it, and promises of treaties that would cement his position as well as his power. He had talked to her about all these things. Ideas marched across his mind as relentlessly as his armies would march through new territories. He was destined to become one of the greatest leaders of men, and with his rise would come her children's. Vanozza tried to comfort herself with the knowledge that one day, as the cardinal's legitimate heirs, they would have wealth, power, and opportunity. And so she could let them go.
Now she held tight to her infant son, Jofre, her only remaining child -- too young to take from her, for he was still at the breast. Yet he too must go before long. Her dark eyes were shiny with tears as she watched her other children walk away. Only once did Lucrezia look back, but the boys never turned around.
Vanozza saw the handsome, imposing figure of the cardinal reach for the small hand of his younger son, Juan, and the tiny hand of his three-year-old daughter, Lucrezia. Their eldest son, Cesare, left out, already looked upset. That meant trouble, she thought, but in time Rodrigo would know them as well as she did. Hesitantly, she closed the heavy wooden front door.
They had taken only a few steps when Cesare, angry now, pushed his brother so hard that Juan, losing his grip on his father's hand, stumbled and almost fell to the ground. The cardinal stopped the small boy's fall, then turned and said, "Cesare, my son, could you not ask for what you want, rather than pushing your brother?"
Juan, a year younger but much more slightly built than the seven-year-old Cesare, snickered proudly at his father's defense. But before he could bask in his satisfaction, Cesare moved closer and stomped hard upon his foot.
Juan cried out in pain.
The cardinal grabbed Cesare by the back of his shirt with one of his large hands -- lifting him off the cobblestone street -- and shook him so hard that his auburn curls tumbled across his face. Then he stood the child on his feet again. Kneeling in front of the small boy, his brown eyes softened. He asked, "What is it, Cesare? What has displeased you so?"
The boy's eyes, darker and more penetrating, glowed like coals as he stared at his father. "I hate him, Papa," he said in an impassioned voice. "You choose him always..."
"Now, now, Cesare," the cardinal said, amused. "The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other. Besides, it's a mortal sin to hate one's own brother, and there is no reason to endanger your immortal soul over such emotions." He stood now, towering over them. Then he smiled as he patted his portly belly. "There is certainly enough of me for all of you...is there not?"