Title: The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power, and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance, 1427-1527
Author: Leonie Frieda
No. of Pages: 432
Origins: Harper Books
Bottom Line: Mediocre biography that does not delve deep enough into the eight women.
“From Leonie Frieda, critically acclaimed biographer of Catherine de Medici, comes The Deadly Sisterhood: an epic tale of eight women whose lives – marked by fortune and poverty, power and powerlessness – encompass the spectacle, opportunity, and depravity of Italy’s Renaissance.Lucrezia Turnabuoni, Clarice Orsini, Beatrice d’Este, Isabella d’Este, Caterina Sforza, Giulia Farnese, Isabella d’Aragona, and Lucrezia Borgia shared the riches of their birthright: wealth, political influence, and friendship, but none were not exempt from personal tragedies, exile, and poverty.With riveting narrative, Leonie Frieda’s The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power, and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance, 1427-1527 brings to life a long-gone era filled with intrigue, corruption, and passion.”
Thoughts: On the surface, The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power, and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance, 1427-1527 has all the hallmarks of a stellar non-fiction novel – infamous subjects, fascinating time period, biographer with experience. Unfortunately, the execution of the book leaves much to be desired, and it is difficult to figure out where the fault lies. The women’s stories are fascinating, but it takes too long for Ms. Frieda to get to them. What’s worse, the promise of a biography about these eight women is not 100 percent correct, as most of the tales are spent weeding through the machinations of the men in their lives rather than specifically about the women. This is the biggest disappointment, as there are other biographies written about one or another of the women mentioned that do concentrate solely on the women and their actions. In these more engaging biographies, the men in their lives are relegated to supporting roles or the stepladders used by the women to reach their powerful goals.
The writing itself fails to grab a reader’s attention. Again, while politics during the Italian Renaissance are extremely convoluted and do require some element of explanation, too many words are devoted to these explanations and not enough to the women’s lives. The details are methodical and frankly quite boring, while the constant intermarriages between families and almost nonstop warring, switching of allegiance, and failed partnerships muddy further complicate them. Ms. Frieda is never fully able to clearly explain politics in Renaissance Italy, and as a result is forever referencing or clarifying certain situations. This creates an unsteady pace, one in which the narrative falters and stops every time Ms. Frieda must back up the action and explain a situation in greater detail. In other words, just when the stories get good, the reader is forced to plod through yet another mind-numbing explanation of various family politics, feuds, and/or power grabs.
The problem lies not in the fact that detailed explanations are required in order for a reader to understand the mindset and power struggles of these women. Rather, the fault lies in the scope of the book’s subject. Including the stories of all eight women requires even more details and descriptions than would be necessary if only one or two were discussed and seriously detracts from the amount of words devoted to the subjects themselves. Had Ms. Frieda only focused on one or two of the women, the entire narrative would have been vastly improved because the focus would not be so large. Simply put, Ms. Frieda was too ambitious in choosing to write about eight amazing women, and she does each of them a disservice because she does not spend enough time focused on any particular one.
In general, The Deadly Sisterhood fails to live up to its promise. It is not so much a story about these eight fascinating and powerful women of Italy but rather a story about Renaissance Italy in which these eight women have a minor part. To add insult to injury, Ms. Frieda’s research appears rather questionable, as she uses as legitimate sources legends and urban myths of the kind that people love to share but have little to no basis in fact. In actuality, some of the rumors and myths she touts as fact are negated as falsehoods in other, similar biographies. In the end, it feels that Ms. Frieda wrote The Deadly Sisterhood to confirm such rumors and to titillate rather than to break new ground in biographical research. As such, the entire novel is a severe disappointment. Readers would be better off checking out some of the many other biographies about the Medici, Orsini, d’Este, Sforza, and Borgia ladies.