The Marriage Portrait: Maggie O’Farrell

Review by Susan T. Landry
Published by Knopf and Headline Publishing Group

I can’t remember the exact circumstances that led me to plunge into Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet two years ago. I am a reasonably omnivorous reader, but rarely choose historical fiction when looking for a new book to get lost in. Not sure why, exactly; maybe I’m a bit of a snob and concerned that I would have to endure a tidal wave of sword plunging and bodice-ripping. Regardless, I was thrilled to find myself woefully mistaken. Maggie O’Farrell has a far more subtle and seductive approach to history. Hamnet knocked my socks off. When I heard O’Farrell had a new book out, I quickly added my name to the wait list at the library.

The Marriage Portrait is set in Italy in the mid-1500s, during the Renaissance. The landscape is rich with forests, castles, and moats, dukes, duchesses and princesses, and all the requisite maids and servants that cushion the life of royalty.

The primary character, Lucrezia de’ Medici, is an imagined version of a real person, the very young duchess recently married to the much older Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia’s family, the Medicis, were historically powerful politicians and bankers, and as such were both emboldened by their power, and yet fearful of losing it to others.

The critical component in this saga for the Ferrara family was the necessity to nullify the family’s lack of a boy child in their lineage. They desperately needed the teenage bride of Alfonso to produce an heir. The crude truth was that procreation was her only job. Any interests, talents, inclinations that Lucrezia had beyond that of baby maker were belittled and actively discouraged.

The build-up to this imperial task and how the expectations are dealt with by all involved propels the story. O’Farrell deftly tantalizes the reader’s desire to know what will happen, and keeps the plot unfurling steadily, albeit with the random stroll through a few low-key side plots that whet the appetite for the greater drama. The title of the book hints at one of the more important distractions; I’ll let you discover the pleasure in following the machinations that interweave both major and minor characters toward the creation of the commissioned marriage portrait.

The primary lure for me as a reader was my endless admiration for O’Farrell’s beautiful writing. Her descriptions of wild animals, natural surroundings, clothing, ancient structures, and the emotional subtleties of the different players are truly remarkable, wonderfully illustrative and free of cliché. I found myself rereading sentences not for plot nor lack of clarity, but simply for the joy of language.

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