The Serpent and the Pearl
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Rome, 1492. The Holy City is drenched with blood and teeming with secrets. A pope lies dying and the throne of God is left vacant, a prize awarded only to the most virtuousor the most ruthless. The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web.
Kate Quinn is a native of Southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in classical voice. A lifelong history buff, she’s written three previous novels set in ancient Rome, Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, and Empress of the Seven Hills, all of which have been translated into multiple languages. Kate lives in Maryland with her husband.
- Which character most suitably earns the title of Serpent? The Pearl? Why?
- Carmelina Mangano opens the novel. Already in the opening pages, it is noted that Carmelina possesses a cook’s nose. How does her talent as a cook change her character? Her life?
- Many characters in the book are based on real people involved with the Borgias. Did you have any preconceptions of the Borgia family that shaped your expectations of the story?
- How does the relationship between Giulia and Lucrezia grow or change throughout the book? Do you have any sympathy for Vannozza dei Cattanei? Why or why not?
- On page 106, Madonna Adriana explains, “My boy [Orsino] will need help if he’s to get on as he should,” in response to Giulia’s accusation that she is a terrible mother. Do you understand her choices or do you find them inexcusable?
- Giulia’s mother told her that a woman has three possible fates: “Wife, nunor whore. And once you’ve chosen, there’s no changing it” (p. 119). Carmelina disagrees. Discuss the female characters and assign each the label of ’wife,’ ’nun,’ or ’whore.’ Why did you choose what you did? Do you agree with Giulia’s mother or Carmlina? Why?
- How is Madonna Adriana’s relationship with Rodrigo Borgia (her cousin) similar to Giulia’s with Sandro or Carmelina’s with Marco? How do the three women manage the men who control their lives, when it comes to getting their own way?
- Once Leonello was named Giulia’s bodyguard, all three narrators had a chance to meet for the first time in Carmelina’s kitchen. What did you suspect would become of them? How did you think they would interact?
- During Lucrezia’s bridal processional to the Vatican, Leonello reflects on the crowd: “They would be pleased by the pomp, dazzled rather than offended. The Borgias, in the eyes of most of the world including themselves, had been put upon the earth by God to lead sumptuous lives on behalf of the masses. Their pomp was God’s will” (p. 169). How is this similar to the way our modern culture idolizes celebrities?
- Leonello is ashamed of himself when he finds cheer in the fact that the fruit vendor, Eleonora, was also staked. Were you happy that this storyline was continued? Did you suspect Cesare?
- Leonello observes that “the degree to which women kiss and coo, I’ve found, is in direct proportion to the degree in which they dislike each other” (p. 311). Do you agree? How do Giulia and Carmelina relate differently to other women, from their very different stations in life? How do they relate to each other?
- Giulia doesn’t walk in her brother’s funeral procession in Capodimonte because, “that wasn’t how things were done here” (p. 327). Would you prefer Giulia live in the country where she’s vilified or in the city where her relationship with the Pope removes her from judgment? How do these distinctions affect the story?
- Do you suspect that Rodrigo cares to save Giulia once she’s captured by the French? Why or why not?
- Giulia reflects on the difference between passion and love, declaring that Rodrigo and Orsino both feel passion for her but not love. Do you agree? Are any of the female characters capable of inspiring love?