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The Marriage Portrait

A novel

by Maggie O'Farrell

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell X
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell
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  • Published:
    Sep 2022, 352 pages


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Power Reviewer
Cloggie Downunder

Maggie O’Farrell never disappoints.
“Vitelli looked at Lucrezia for a long moment. His eyes travelled from her hair, divided down the centre, to her temples, to her eyes, cheeks, neck, arms, hands. Lucrezia quailed, trembling. She felt like a floor being swept by a brush, again and again.”

The Marriage Portrait is the ninth novel by award-winning, best-selling British author, Maggie O’Farrell. From the moment that Lucretia di Cosimo de’ Medici learns she is to be given to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara in marriage, she is afraid. The twelve-year-old already senses there will be danger in this contract. Yet, she is indeed married to him at fifteen and dead, less than a year later.

In a dual time-line narrative, O’Farrell details the day that Alfonso takes his young bride away from her servants, her women in the castello at Ferrara, to an isolated fortezza near Bondeno; and describes Lucrezia’s life in the decade and a half that precedes it. With exquisitely beautiful descriptive prose, she expands the scant known historical record into an enthralling tale rich in interesting minutiae.

Lucretia is a fascinating protagonist: her mother Eleanora blames her own distraction at the time of conception for the restlessness and intractability of her fifth child. Lucretia is intelligent and aware, a talented artist, but lacks close connection to her parents and siblings, feeling more love from her wet nurse and her mother’s nurse, Sofia, than her family.

“She recalled every word of the story the tutor told them last week – it was the way her mind worked. Words pressed themselves into her memory, like a shoe sole into soft mud, which would dry and solidify, the shoe print preserved forever.”

She pleads not to be wed to Alfonso, to have to leave Florence and live far away in Ferrara, but such is the mindset of the Grand Duke of Tuscany: children are for marrying off, matches necessary to form strong alliances; of course the wedding will go ahead.

The first weeks of her marriage are spent in the delizia near Veghiera, learning her imperious husband’s mercurial moods and understanding that this marriage will be nothing like the loving relationship her parents still enjoy. Her only ally is her maid-servant, Emilia, the daughter of her wet nurse.

When she can’t paint, any boredom or unpleasantness, she endures through dissociation. A disguise allows her to explore: “A maid in a brown dress might as well be a table or a sconce on the wall. She has access suddenly to the private hidden life of the castello, the wrong side of its embroidery, with all the knots and weave and secrets on display.”

Finally in Ferrara, while Alfonso is ever-busy with matters of state, Lucrezia is swept into the company of his sisters: Elisabetta, she takes to immediately; Nunciata, not at all. Alfonso engages an artist, assisted by apprentices, to paint Lucrezia’s marriage portrait.

O’Farrell’s extensive research is apparent on every page, but never is this a dreary tome full of dry historical facts; rather, the reader is gripped by the progress towards Lucrezia’s inevitable fate and the breathtaking final chapter.

And the prose! It’s hard to limit the quotes: “The tigress didn’t so much pace as pour herself, as if her very essence was molten, simmering, like the ooze from a volcano. It was hard to distinguish the bars of the cage from the dark, repeating stripes on the creature’s fur. The animal was orange, burnished gold, fire made flesh; she was power and anger, she was vicious and exquisite; she carried on her body the barred marks of a prison, as if she had been branded for exactly this, as if captivity had been her destiny all along.”

Also “The sentence seems to slide from her mouth and gather like smoke in the air between them” and “Sleep will not come for her; it is a steed she cannot catch or harness; it throws her off, it takes flight if she comes near, it refuses her entreaties” are examples. Maggie O’Farrell never disappoints.

Another Home Run by Maggie O'Farrell
Maggie O'Farrell has written another great historical novel. In this book she writes about Lucrezia de' Medici, who was married at a young age to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara in the 1500s. She lived only two more years after the marriage and died when she was 17. The circumstances surrounding her death were mysterious and some accounts say she died of tuberculosis, but others think she might have been poisoned.

O'Farrell brings us into this world and creates a fascinating character in Lucrezia. We care deeply for this girl who is fierce and independent, yet so young and unable to be in control of her own destiny.

The story begins with Lucrezia knowing that her husband is plotting to kill her. The story goes back in forth in time as Lucrezia is near death and then back to her childhood and marriage.

The book is absolutely compelling and O'Farrell has turned Lucrezia's story into a page-turner.

I loved it!
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