40. THE SECOND DUCHESS, BY ELIZABETH LOUPAS
This book was recommended to me by a friend who shares my love for historical fiction. (I suppose I have a love for every genre of books, but I do like historical fiction a lot.) She said it was a bit different from other historical fiction books. I’d have to agree.
Synopsis: Barbara, sister to the Austrian emperor and part of the Habsburg lineage, arrives in Ferrara after her marriage to the Duke to be the Duchess. Being old (for the time) and considered ugly, she’s immediately annoyed by how everyone seems to compare her with the young and pretty former duchess, her husband’s first wife who died in very mysterious circumstances. Her husbands turns Bluebeard on her when she asks about the first duchess’s death, but instead of being intimidated, she decides to investigate.
Overall enjoyment: Well... I did like it. It was well-written and different; it was quite innovative to write a mystery with historical personages as protagonists. Plus, it was engaging and enjoyable. The only problem I had was with the sexism. To be honest, thought, it’s really not all that bad in the text itself (it is there, and it did bother me some, but it wasn’t overwhelming), but it gets worse when you read the author’s note and look at the story with that in mind. Until then, it was a 3.5 star rating, after that, it's a 2 star at best.
Plot: Well constructed, in the classical whodunnit style. It’s a bit forced at times, but it flows nicely and kept me turning the pages.
Characters: Could’ve been better, but not too bad, either. I’d say satisfactory.
World/setting: “Italy” in the 16th century, richly described and well detailed, without making the reading boring.
Writing style: Pleasant enough. I quite enjoyed the idea of having the ghost of the dead duchess offering commentary at the end of each chapter, but it could have been better exploited.
Representation: It would have been hard to put some POC in this story, considering the setting. It could have been better with different sexualities, but that’s always tricky when you use actual historical figures as characters.
Political correctness: That is the problem, isn’t it? Like I said, the text is sexist, but it wasn’t overwhelming, and I could overlook it to enjoy the story. The biggest problem here is slut-shaming. Of course the characters would condemn women who had sex, the book is set in the 16th century, but I couldn’t help the feeling that the author agreed with them. Especially when you have Barbara, who is investigating the murder and is supposed to be clear-headed and fair, agreeing with the duke when he says he had the right to wish his former wife dead because of her cheating; and when you have her ghost crying and saying she should have been a better wife and obeyed her husband (even when he was cold and aggressive towards her).
Then you get to the Author’s Note, where she explains her motivations to write the book. She based it in a poem where the duke says he killed his wife because she cheated on him. And she says she wanted to vindicate the duke’s memory. And then I look back at the book, and she basically does it by painting the young duchess as a frivolous nymphomaniac, and him as the strong, silent type who simply didn’t want anything to do with the girl. That is such bullshit. She even has him beating his wife (and the new one, whom he supposedly loves - that’s another problem; he never beat the young duchess because he “didn’t care enough for her”, so, you know, if a man beats you up is because he cares for you) and I’m supposed to believe he was the victim here? I’m supposed to feel sorry for him because his FOURTEEN YEAR OLD WIFE wasn’t mature enough for him? Because the girl who was married to him AGAINST HER WILL wouldn’t behave the way he wanted her to? And so he decides to send her to a convent and marry again, because he had the possibility of being rid of her; she, on the other hand, no matter how she felt about him, had to pray he wanted to keep her, because her other choices were death or life imprisonment. Get real.
Up next: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison