Book Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

About the Book:

Florence, the 1560s. Lucrezia, third daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, is free to wander the palazzo at will, wondering at its treasures and observing its clandestine workings. But when her older sister dies on the eve of marriage to Alfonso d’Este, 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 to accept on her behalf.

Having barely left girlhood, Lucrezia must now make her way in a troubled court whose customs are opaque and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate her appears 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 uncomfortable finery for the painting which is 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 Ferrarese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, her future hangs entirely in the balance.

Published by Hachette Australia – Tinder Press

Released 30 August 2022

My Thoughts:

Oh Maggie O’Farrell, your words make my heart sing. Fans of Hamnet will not be disappointed in this latest release by O’Farrell, it is just as magnificent, just as captivating, and just as sublime as Hamnet was. O’Farrell is such a vivid writer, one of the few that can offer readers a truly immersive reading experience, in my opinion.

‘You,’ Elisabetta breathes, maliciously, almost delightedly. ‘You will be blamed. So be careful, Lucrezia. Be very, very careful.’

In The Marriage Portrait, O’Farrell gives us a fictional retelling of the short life and marriage of Lucrezia de’ Medici, third daughter of Cosimo l de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, fateful first wife of Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. History reports that Lucrezia died of pulmonary tuberculosis, but it was rumoured immediately after her death that she had been poisoned on the orders of her husband, most likely on account of her not having fallen pregnant, an impossibility for her given the Duke’s proven inability to father a child. From the opening pages of this novel, we are within the skin of Lucrezia as she realises that she has been brought to a country estate by her husband so that he can murder her without witnesses. It’s a chilling premise and sets the overall tone of the novel well.

Lucrezia suddenly sees that some vital part of her will not bend, will never yield. She cannot help it – it is just the way she is built. And Alfonso, possessed of such a swift and perceptive way of reading people, must have sensed this. Why else would he have become so furious with her, if not to try to break down the walls of that citadel, capture it and declare himself victor?

If she is to survive this marriage, or perhaps even to thrive within it, she must preserve this part of herself and keep it away from him, separate, sacred. She will surround it with a thorn-thicket or a high fence, like a castle in a folktale; she will station bare-toothed, long-clawed beasts at its doors. He will never know it, never see it, never reach it. He shall not penetrate it.

The structure of this novel makes for a highly compelling read. After the opening, whereby Lucrezia realises she is to die, we go back to the beginning, to her conception and then birth, the early years right through to the point where she takes the place of her older deceased sister to marry the Duke. I was struck with some force throughout this novel, many times, of the trauma of being a child bride. So many women, throughout history, sold into marriage for political alliance by their families at such young ages, no knowledge of sex, no prior feelings of love, just an expectation of obedience and duty. O’Farrell gives insight into this trauma through Lucrezia’s recounts of ‘the nightly expectations’. The manner in which Lucrezia removes herself from her body, the way she builds herself a fantasy nightmare realm as a means of coping with it was heart-breaking to read. In so many ways, The Marriage Portrait is a feminist text, one that sings with fury.

She will tell her that, in the palazzo in Florence, the servants were in awe of Lucrezia, that some feared her.

This makes Lucrezia stop weeping. Why? she will want to know.

Because, says Emilia, there was a rumour about you. Someone swore that, when you were a little girl, he once saw you touch a tiger. And the tiger didn’t harm you, it let you stroke it. It was always said that you had charmed the beast, like an enchantress. Impossible, of course, but-

Not impossible, says Lucrezia, not at all.

Then she closes her eyes and falls asleep. In and out of her dreams shifts the barred orange flank of a distantly remembered beast, with large paws and a simmering amber gaze.

Needless to say, I loved The Marriage Portrait and highly recommend it. A reading highlight of my year so far.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

26 thoughts on “Book Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. I cannot wait!! I’ve been holding off reading this one because I’m copyediting, and while reading something excellent is necessary for inspiration, it can also make me a bit despairing in comparison …! But I’m so excited to read. (Have you managed to get onto her backlist at all? The Hand That First Held Mine and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox are my other faves.) Thank you for the fab review. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you get a chance to see Maggie on her tour it’s well worth it. She talks about the book and her process in such an accessible way plus she looks beautiful. I agree with your review. Any minor flaws are made up for by her wonderful writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m only a few chapters in but am completely hooked. O’Farrell has never disappointed me in all the books by her that I’ve read but this is one of her best.
    I’ve been haunted by the Robert Browning poem My Last Duchess ever since coming across it for the first time on a literature course. It’s chilling in the sense that you know the Duke is about to take another young bride and you wonder what her future will be

    Liked by 1 person

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