In Browning’s masterpiece, the Duke speaks of his last Duchess on the wall, painted by Fra Pandolf, “looking as if she were alive.” In this, Kimm’s second novel, she creates the circumstances that lead up to the ominous moment when the Duchess is dead and the Duke jealously guards the painting’s likeness. The Duchess is Lucrezia de’ Medici, the teenage heir to a considerable 16th-century fortune who is set to marry the powerful Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The excitement of the marriage ceremony is overshadowed by the misery of the marriage night—the Duke cannot perform. We learn it is no medical matter—the Duke’s mistress Francesca has two of his children—but a matter of temperament. Lucrezia’s innocent beauty prevents his “stiffening.” He keeps trying, but his withering penis (it’s practically a character itself) is beginning to turn him mad. The Duke’s madness—a buzzing in his head, an obsessive fury and relief found only in the cool confines of the castle dungeon—is a modern take on Browning’s villain, and makes the Duke credible. After two years of an issueless marriage to Lucrezia, the Pope is threatening to take away Ferrara if he does not produce a legitimate heir. Meanwhile, the Duke has hired Fra Pandolf to paint a large fresco and Lucrezia is unexpectedly taken with his assistant, Jacomo. The two begin an affair and plan to run away together, once they figure out how to solve the mountain of complications their escape would create. The Duke, more desperate and sadistic than ever, has decided to poison Lucrezia, but not before Fra Pandolf paints her portrait, so he can once and for all possess her. Far more erudite than the average bodice-ripper, the novel straddles the line between the gravity of historical fiction and the trite predictability of romance.Few surprises, but a punchy end redeems the occasional awkwardness.