Just as there may be an under painting hiding under a painting, nothing is as it seems in this novel. Everything is a trick of the eye. The singers that sing so well are actually eunuchs. The assistant that is supposed to be mute actually speaks a Neapolitan dialect. Alfonso is not a doting husband who treasures his new wife.
The Duchess realizes something is amiss when she hears him describe her as “my first Duchess.” This is the first moment that ascertains that she is disposable.
She always knew that she would be married to aggrandize her father’s rule:
She expected him to command and she knew she would have to produce a male heir. She also knew that he surrounded himself with devious, heartless people like Leonello. What Lucrezia did not foresee was that the Duke of Ferarra is capable of killing those who would thwart his power.
The Duke wants a male heir so badly that he has Lucrezia follow a cruel regimen. Consequently, Lucrezia looks completely diffferent from the woman il Bastianino painted for the Duke, his marriage portrait of them.
When she fails to produce a son, the Duke takes her to his fortezza, a hunting lodge. The opening pages of the novel take us to this horrifying moment when Lucrezia knows she is in grave danger followed by a series of flashbacks.
O’Farrell constructs an illuminating portrait of Renaissance Italy in which women were traded among influential families. The Duchess is this story is so intuitive that recognizes the Duke’s machinations. Like a good thriller, this suspenseful story ends in a surprising way.