"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Saturday, March 4, 2023


The Marriage Portrait
by Maggie O'Farrell is a novelized story of the the life of the actual 16th-century noblewoman, Lucrezia di Cosimo de'Medici. Little is known historically about Lucrezia but what is known is that she was forced to marry a much older man, Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, thus merging two dynasties, at age thirteen, though they did not live together until she was fifteen. By age sixteen the girl was dead. In order for Lucrezia to do her duty to her husband she had to produce an heir. No child came out of the couple's short union. From the time of her death there were whispers that the unfortunate bride was poisoned, though most experts believe she probably died of tuberculosis.

One painted portrait of the young girl exists and from that picture and the small amount of information left behind, Maggie O'Farrell has spun a story of the life of women in the 16th-century, especially those in the noble classes. Her idea for the novel came from Robert Browning's famous poem "My Last Duchess."

Browning’s dramatic monologue takes us inside the mind of the Duke of Ferrara, as he shows a painting of his former wife (Lucrezia) to a representative of the family of his next bride-to-be. An avaricious megalomaniac, the duke prefers her ever-smiling portrait to the original girl because the image is inert and easier to control. (The Guardian)

The first chapter starts at the ending, with Lucrezia at a hunting lodge with her husband, away from any plausible help, where she is sure she will be poisoned. Obviously, the author intends for her readers to be looking out for instances of high drama that would lead to such a claim and indeed there are many circumstances that lead the reader to believe the husband has little love for his bride and could indeed pull off such a deadly plan as to have her murdered. But many professional reviewers point out that this is melodrama reworked to appeal to a progressive 21st-century audience. We are led to believe that Lucrezia was raised by thoughtless and uncaring parents and that she had the possibility of escaping her circumstances. But the truth of the matter was that noble women growing up in that time period knew their place in life and knew they would likely end up in a loveless marriage, their main role would be to create heirs to carry on the family's line. There were not many other options for them.

But I confess I am a 21st-century woman so I was part of the prime audience for The Marriage Portrait. I cheered for Lucrezia as she found little ways to be remain independent and remained resolutely defiant in the the face of her bullying husband and his cronies. The ending, which is not in keeping with the historical records, was surprising and redemptive. 

I became an O'Farrell fan after reading Hamnet in 2021. That story, also set in the 16th-century was about Shakespeare's family, specifically his wife Anne. That story had an air of plausibility about it and O'Farrell's writing style and skills had me enraptured form page one. The Marriage Portrait seemed less plausible plot-wise, but it beautifully captured what daily life was like for women living in that time. I could picture it all from O'Farrell's detailed descriptions.

I listened to the audiobook version of The Marriage Portrait which is usually a good choice for me, but this time I wished I were reading the print version. I wanted to linger on the beautiful prose as well as ponder over the clues of the mystery and the full cast of characters, also plucked from history. It was a book club selection and we had a fairly good discussion over the book, though no one was wildly crazy about the book, no one hated it either.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.


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