I’ve been craving a juicy historical drama and along comes The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. Set in Renaissance Italy, the novel is loosely based on Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici’s disastrous marriage to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. As many aristocratic girls of her time, poor 13 year-old Lucrezia becomes a chess piece in the political game of strategic unions. Farrell gets under the skin of our bewildered heroine as we follow her from one golden cage to the next. Her writing transports us to a different time with evocative descriptions of landscapes, interiors, clothing, smells and sounds. Is it as good as the fabulous Hamnet? Not quite, but it’s nevertheless a delightful, fairytale-esque, page-turner.
Lucrezia’s existence is – to put it mildly – sheltered. Bar the occasional chaperoned visit outside the grand Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, her world revolves around her siblings, governess and tutors within the four walls of the palace. A relatively happy and carefree life is suddenly upended when her older sister, Maria, dies unexpectedly. Maria, originally destined to become Alfonso’s wife, is swiftly replaced with Lucrezia.
We know from the first chapter – and history – that Alfonso and Lucrezia’s marriage ends in tears. After just one year, she dies a mysterious death, purportedly caused by tuberculosis. Rumours of poisoning abound. The chapters jump back and forth between Lucrezia’s final hours at an isolated fortress and the run up to and first year of her marriage.
As readers of mega bestseller Hamnet will remember, O’Farrell is adept at creating richly imagined fictional worlds. Despite Lucrezia’s incredible wealth and social standing, her world is much more limited that Agnes’. Here, the pigs, bustling markets and village alehouses are exchanged for luscious walled gardens, creaking corsets and echoing silences. O’Farrell holds a magnifying glass up to her surroundings and shows us the most stunning details.
There’s a dreamlike quality to this novel reinforced by the fairy tale references – the young virgin cooped up in a tower, her Rapunzel-esque hair, the two evil sisters-in-law. The ending will divide readers. I felt it was a slight cop-out, but others might disagree. Ending aside, I gobbled up this novel and loved every second of it.
Perfect escapism for our dire times.
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press, 448 pages.