Announcing our Top 20 Books of 2022 and Award Winners

Reviews of The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

The Marriage Portrait

A novel

by Maggie O'Farrell

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell X
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Published:
    Sep 2022, 352 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
Buy This Book

About this Book

Book Summary

The author of Hamnet - New York Times bestseller and National Book Award winner - brings the world of Renaissance Italy to jewel-bright life in this unforgettable portrait of the captivating young duchess Lucrezia de' Medici as she makes her way in a troubled court.

Florence, the 1550s. Lucrezia, third daughter of the grand duke, is comfortable with her obscure place in the palazzo: free to wonder at its treasures, observe its clandestine workings, and devote herself to her own artistic pursuits. But when her older sister dies on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight: the duke is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father just as quick to accept on her behalf.

Having barely left girlhood behind, Lucrezia must now enter an unfamiliar court whose customs are opaque and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her new husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate he appeared to be before their wedding, the aesthete happiest in the company of artists and musicians, or the ruthless politician before whom even his formidable sisters seem to tremble?

As Lucrezia sits in constricting finery for a painting intended to preserve her image for centuries to come, one thing becomes worryingly clear. In the court's eyes, she has one duty: to provide the heir who will shore up the future of the Ferranese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, the new duchess's future hangs entirely in the balance.

Full of the beauty and emotion with which she illuminated the Shakespearean canvas of Hamnet, Maggie O'Farrell turns her talents to Renaissance Italy in an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman's battle for her very survival.

A Wild and Lonely Place

Fortezza, near Bondeno, 1561


Lucrezia is taking her seat at the long dining table, which is polished to a watery gleam and spread with dishes, inverted cups, a woven circlet of fir. Her husband is sitting down, not in his customary place at the opposite end but next to her, close enough that she could rest her head on his shoulder, should she wish; he is unfolding his napkin and straightening a knife and moving the candle towards them both when it comes to her with a peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed from them, that he intends to kill her.

She is sixteen years old, not quite a year into her marriage. They have travelled for most of the day, using what little daylight the season offers, leaving Ferrara at dawn and riding out to what he had told her was a hunting lodge, far in the north-west of the province.

But this is no hunting lodge, is what Lucrezia had wanted to say when they reached their ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. From the start, Lucrezia's temperament is difficult for her mother to tolerate. Are Lucrezia's intellect and willfulness a liability or a benefit in shaping the course of her life?
  2. What distinctions did you notice between the way girls and boys were raised in Cosimo's household? To what extent are Lucrezia and her siblings permitted to experience childhood innocence?
  3. As you read the story of the tigress, what parallels did you see between the entrapment of trophy animals and the Duke's quest to preserve and expand his dynasty?
  4. Discuss the novel's portrayals of motherhood. How do Eleanora, Sofia, and Emilia's mother (a cook and wet nurse) provide varied forms of sustenance to Lucrezia at key points in her life? Ultimately, who makes ...
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!
  • award image

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The structure gives the book the feel of a murder mystery — Will he or won't he do it? What is he capable of? — and the simmering undercurrents of danger draw the reader in, enveloping us in Lucrezia's fear and confusion, but also her intelligence and bravery. By shortening the distance between Lucrezia's lifetime and our own, O'Farrell also makes the risks of succession and reproduction patently clear for modern readers. She provides a glimpse of the terror, pride, hope, danger and sometimes affection that marriage entailed for early modern women, all within an exciting and fast-paced tale...continued

Full Review Members Only (870 words).

(Reviewed by Rose Rankin).

Media Reviews

The Washington Post
O'Farrell pulls out little threads of historical detail to weave this story of a precocious girl sensitive to the contradictions of her station... You may know the history, and you may think you know what's coming, but don't be so sure. O'Farrell and Lucrezia, with her 'crystalline, righteous anger,' will always be one step ahead of you... O'Farrell [is] one of the most exciting novelists alive.

New York Times
In this novel the characters are so one-dimensional and overwrought that the force of neither driver lands. The novelist begins to resemble a conjurer forcing cards.

Booklist (starred review)
[A] poetically written, multilayered novel ... O'Farrell creates another mesmerizing portrait of a Renaissance-era woman whose life is shrouded in mystery ... Historical-fiction readers will love the cultural details, while Lucrezia's plight speaks to modern themes of gaslighting and women's agency ... O'Farrell shines at instilling elegantly described scenes with human feeling, such as Lucrezia's wedding preparations and her sense of inner strength while viewing the sunrise transform the sky at Alfonso's country villa. The author proves equally skilled at evoking suspense.

BookPage (starred review)
A vivid depiction of the harsh manners and rigid expectations for women within ducal courts in 16th-century Italy ... O'Farrell is a marvelous stylist, and The Marriage Portrait is full of the same kinds of intense details that made Hamnet come alive. Her characters are captivating and believable, and the landscape of Renaissance Italy is a veritable gift to the senses, so powerfully does O'Farrell evoke the sights, sounds and smells of forest, castle and barnyard.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This lush, provocative historical from National Book Critics Circle Award winner O'Farrell follows a young woman who is married off at 15 amid the complex world of 16th-century Italian city-states. O'Farrell bases her heroine, Lucrezia de' Medici, on a real-life figure...By imagining an alternative fate for Lucrezia that deviates from the historical record, the author crafts a captivating portrait of a woman attempting to free herself from a golden cage. Fans of the accomplished Hamnet won't be disappointed by this formidable outing.

Kirkus Reviews
"The rollbacks to earlier periods spark some impatience as Lucrezia's 1561 dilemma becomes more pressing, but O'Farrell's vivid portrait of a turbulent age and a vibrant heroine mostly compensate for an undue lengthening of suspense as Lucrezia struggles to defy her fate. A compelling portrait of a young woman out of step with her times.

Reader Reviews

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 ...   Read More
Roberta

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 ...   Read More

Write your own review!

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book

The Este Dynasty of Ferrara, Italy

Painting of Isabella d'Este by TitianIn The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O'Farrell captures the dark personality of Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara (a region in northern Italy), who lived from 1533 to 1597. Alfonso was the last in his family lineage, which stretched back to the 13th century. As monarchs around the world have experienced throughout history, a lack of male heirs doomed the Este dynasty — despite marrying three times, Alfonso fathered no children. Prior to the end of the line, however, the Este family produced some of the most colorful characters and generous art patrons of the Italian Renaissance.

The most notable members of the family include Ercole I (d. 1505), who became a leading patron by bringing artists to the court at Ferrara — he had a ...

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Readalikes

Read-alikes Full readalike results are for members only

More books by Maggie O'Farrell

If you liked The Marriage Portrait, try these:

  • Matrix jacket

    Matrix

    by Lauren Groff

    Published 2022

    About this book

    More by this author

    Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.

  • Revelations jacket

    Revelations

    by Mary Sharratt

    Published 2022

    About this book

    More by this author

    A fifteenth-century Eat, Pray, Love, Revelations illuminates the intersecting lives of two female mystics who changed history - Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich.

Non-members are limited to two results. Become a member
Search read-alikes again
How we choose readalikes
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Join and Save 20%!

Become a member and
discover exceptional books.

Find out more


Award Winners

  • Book Jacket: Horse
    Horse
    by Geraldine Brooks
    Voted 2022 Best Fiction Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers. Geraldine Brooks creates a ...
  • Book Jacket: In Love
    In Love
    by Amy Bloom
    Voted 2022 Best Nonfiction Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers. In 2019, author Amy Bloom and her...
  • Book Jacket: Remarkably Bright Creatures
    Remarkably Bright Creatures
    by Shelby Van Pelt
    Voted 2022 Best Debut Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers. Shelby Van Pelt's debut novel, ...

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Scatterlings
    by Resoketswe Martha Manenzhe

    The debut novel of a gifted storyteller who has become a sensation in her native South Africa.

Wordplay

The Big Holiday Wordplay

Enter Now

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
Honor
by Thrity Umrigar
Set in India, a tender and evocative novel about love across a cultural divide, familial devotion and betrayal.
Who Said...

Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.