16 September 2022

Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette *

Sublime, just sublime! The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell is one of my most highly anticipated releases for 2022, especially after her previous novel Hamnet made it on to my Top 5 Books of 2021 list last year.

The Marriage Portrait is an historical fiction novel about the life of Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici set in Renaissance Florence in the 16th century. The author shares an historical note at the front of the book telling us that in 1560, newly married Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici left Florence at the age of fifteen to begin her life with husband Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. Less than a year later, Lucrezia would be dead, surrounded by the rumour she was murdered by her husband for failing to produce an heir.

This author's note made for an incredibly unexpected beginning, and ensured that every reader - regardless of their knowledge of Italian history - embarked on the novel on equal terms.

In doing so, we follow Lucrezia's narrative in dual timelines in pre-marriage years (1550s) and post marriage years of 1560, right up until her death in 1561. Lucrezia was a troubled child and her mother blamed herself for the girl's odd behaviour.
"It has been drummed into her by physicians and priests alike, that the character of a child is determined by the mother's thoughts at the moment of conception. Too late, however. Eleanora's mind, here in the map room, is unsettled, untamed, wandering at will. She is looking at maps, at landscapes, at wildernesses." Page 10
How is it even possible to shake our heads at the mistaken belief a woman's thoughts during sex and conception would affect a child's temperament, while simultaneously hopeful that the child born of such a union will be wild and adventurous. Reading this, I couldn't wait to find out what kind of girl Lucrezia would turn out to be.

The writing in The Marriage Portrait is simply divine. Each time I picked up this gorgeous book with stunning cover design, beautiful end papers and fabulous french flaps I had to stop and take note of page numbers I wanted to come back to and descriptions that took my breath away.

Here's a sample of the author's humour first:
"'Indeed,' Vitelli remarked, inclining his head, then he pulled an odd face, his eyes creased, his lips retreating from his teeth. It took Lucrezia a moment to realise that Vitelli was attempting a smile." Page 87
Later the author describe's the cause of Lucrezia's insomnia so clearly that every reader can relate to her plight:
"But sleep will not come for Lucrezia, refuses to hear her call. Her mind, made restless by the journey, by the new rooms, has too much to do, too many impressions to review and polish and store away, too many questions to pose and ponder." Quote page 303
How many readers can immediately relate to Lucrezia's insomnia? I'd go so far as to say all of us, yet somehow O'Farrell makes her protagonist's insomnia feel otherworldly, and so weighted down by history yet instantly relatable at the same time.

Sometimes the author was able to move me with just two words, in this case 'apologetic' and 'creep', have you ever seen them together? How's this:
"She is used to the Tuscan climate, where there is a slow tapering-off of warmth and light, a gradual tip into autumn, winter arriving in an apologetic creep." Page 353
This gave me a little shiver, and I instantly visualised the frosty winter creeping across the land. In some cases, the writing is free and other times - like this one - the writing is claustrophobic. When donning her wedding dress, Lucrezia notes the following:
"The gown rustles and slides around her, speaking a glossolalia all of its own, the silk moving against the rougher nap of the underskirts, the bone supports of the bodice straining and squealing against their coverings, the cuffs scuffing and chafing the skin of her wrists, the stiffened collar hooking and nibbling at her nape, the hip supports creaking like the rigging of a ship. It is a symphony, an orchestra of fabrics, and Lucrezia would like to cover her ears, to stop them with her palms, but she cannot. She must continue like this to the door; she must walk through it, out into the corridor, where there are people - her father's officials, her mother's retinue - waiting for her." Page 123
The author made me feel the oppressive weight of the fabric, itch with discomfort and bend under the pressure of the stifling expectations. Ugh, heavy stuff!

Lucrezia reluctantly fulfils her duty by marrying her dead sister's fiance, but her husband Alfonso is a real piece of work. Simultaneously charming and manipulative, he soon emerges as a fully developed monster. Lucrezia is a young woman without any agency, but thankfully she is still full of spirit:
"Only she knows that within, just under her chilled skin, something quite other is taking place: flames, vibrant and consoling, lick at her insides, a fire kindles, cracks and smoulders, throwing out smoke that infiltrates every corner of her, every fingernail, every inch of her limbs. Her hair surrounds her - all he can see of her is the top of her head. He must believe she is listening to his lecture, to his chiding, but no. She is stoking this conflagration, letting it blaze, encouraging it to sear every inside space. He will never know, will never reach this part of her, no matter how violently he grips her arm or seizes her wrists." Pages 277 - 278
When Lucrezia begins to fear her life is in danger, she is desperate to escape her plight. She ruminates:
"Her brothers, by contrast, were trained as rulers: they have been taught to fight, to argue, to debate, to negotiate, to outwit, to outmanoeuvre, to wait, to spot an advantage, to scheme and manipulate and consolidate their influence. They have been schooled in rhetoric, in narrative, in persuasion, both written and verbal. Every morning they are drilled in running, jumping, boxing, weight-lifting, fencing. They have learnt to handle a sword, a dagger, a bow, a lance, a spear; they are taught how to fight on a battlefield: they have studied military tactics. They have been instructed in hand-to-hand combat, with their fists and their feet, in the event of their needing to defend themselves on a street or in a room or on a staircase. They have been taught the fastest and most efficient ways to end the life of another person - an enemy or an assailant or an undesirable." Page 282
Just as Lucrezia is reflecting on all of this, the reader shares her absolute horror that her husband Alfonso will have undergone the same training. How can she refuse to yield herself to a man like that? How can she ever fight back or stand up to him? She is his inferior in every way.

Occasionally, due to the Florentine setting and the inclusion of the Medici family, I was reminded of Luna in The Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt. Set in 1479, that novel is also a young coming of age story set in renaissance Italy with a spirited and inspiring female protagonist chafing against the cultural constraints against women. If you enjoyed one, you'll love the other but I do recommend reading them more than three months apart.

The ending of The Marriage Portrait was a complete and utter shock, and it shouldn't have been. I'll say no more, but readers will either love the surprise, or they won't. I wasn't a fan, but the novel moved me so much that The Marriage Portrait is still a solid 5 star read for me and a definite contender for this year's Top 5 Books of 2022 list.

Sublime and highly recommended!

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. I'm half way through and so far, I agree with you totally!

    1. Great to hear you're loving this so far Davida! I can't wait to hear your thoughts on the book when you finish it. Savour every page though :-)

  2. I coudln't get into Hamnet but am going to give this a go!

    1. Hi Carole, even if you didn't get into Hamnet, I'd still give this one a go. You have everything to gain if this one is a better fit. Fingers crossed!

  3. I was a Renaissance History major and I am looking forward to this. I do agree that sometimes it is painful to read books about women who have no agency but it is more annoying when authors pretend things were otherwise! O'Farrell is a good researcher without making her story dry or too detailed.

    1. Thanks so much! As a Renaissance History major, I think you'll love this and I heartily agree with you about some authors applying too much literary license. Hope you enjoy it :-)

  4. I can't wait to read this one!

  5. I only recently read my first O'Farrell book but this one is calling my name at the moment.

    1. Hi Marg, I'm relatively new to O'Farrell too with Hamnet and now this one, I hope you enjoy it!


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