Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

The Marriage Portrait
by Maggie O'Farrell
Read by Genevieve Gaunt 
13 hours, 21 minutes
Published September 2022 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
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.

My Thoughts: 
This is one of those books that you hear about and you immediately know that you want to read (especially if you read and really enjoyed O'Farrell's Hamlet). But then you don't get around to it for one reason or another, mostly because there are just so many books to get to every year. But I pick the books for my book club every year and I pick them for several reasons, not the least of which is that they might be a book I've been wanting to read and I can work it into that year's theme. And so I came to The Marriage Plot

  • I'm sure this is an excellent read in print, but I can't recommend the audiobook enough. Genevieve Gaunt it terrific and it's so helpful to hear how things should be pronounced, the names in particular.
  • O'Farrell has taken the portrait of a real woman, about whom very little is known beyond who her family was and who she married, and crafted a wonderful story around it. In the author's notes, O'Farrell explains how she took details about the family's life and wove them into the story in different ways. 
  • The book jumps from a forward moving narrative of Lucrezia's life, from her birth until her arrival in the court of Ferrara, and a later point in time when Lucrezia has been moved by Alfonso to a remote fortress where she is certain he is going to kill her. This back and forth creates something of a mystery - is the man who Lucrezia became enamored of as a young girl when Alfonso was betrothed to her sister really the monster she now believes him to be or is this very young woman misreading this man who is doing nothing more than trying to hold his kingdom together. 
  • Which brings me to this: you all know how bad I am at predicting what's going to happen in a mystery; so it will come as no surprise to find that I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out how Lucrezia was going to get out of trouble, if indeed Alfonso was the monster she believed him to be. So anything was going to come as something of a surprise to me. But what actually happened completely blindsided me. 
  • As a child whose mother turned her early upbringing over to a cook because she had no idea how to deal with her and whose nurse turned out to be the only person who ever really understood her, it's not surprising that Lucrezia's story paints a stark contrast between the rich and those who care for them. News flash (not really): the rich don't come out looking too good in comparison to those who care for them. 
  •  The Marriage Portrait is a wonderful story that kept my attention throughout and had me listening at times when I normally don't listen to audiobooks. But what really wow'd me about this book was O'Farrell's ability to draw the reader in with all of the senses. You could smell flowers, taste the food, feel the richness of the fabrics, hear the music that Alfonso so loved, see exactly what Lucretia's magnificent wedding dress looked like. I couldn't help but think how much Gretchen Rubin, author of Life In Five Senses, would enjoy it. 
This one's going on the top books of the year list. It was a hit with the book club and I highly recommend it. 

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