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The Marriage Portrait
by Maggie O’Farrell
Did you read Maggie O’Farrell’s glorious Hamnet – the emotional story of Shakespeare’s son – which won the Women’s Prize last year? This time – based on a small historical fact – she turns her talents to Renaissance Italy in an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman’s battle for survival in a cruel political world.
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 unclear and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her new husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful gentleman he appeared to be before their wedding or is he 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…
An extraordinary writer with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds – Observer
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. – The Washington Post
O’Farrell intelligently connects Lucrezia’s trapped circumstances with the art that her husband, a notable patron and collector, commissions to immortalize her . . . There is a blinding power to the heightened, almost fetishistic beauty of Renaissance art, this novel suggests as it portrays a world of far greater brutality and fierceness. – Wall Street Journal
A compelling portrait of a young woman out of step with her times . . . a vivid portrait of a turbulent age and a vibrant heroine. – Kirkus Reviews
This duchess certainly looks and sounds and feels as if she were alive . . . O’Farrell has an uncanny ability to put us in Lucrezia’s very unusual shoes. One experiences, viscerally, Lucrezia’s exhaustion and terror when she is abandoned in a strange place a few hours after her marriage, her giddy excitement and expansive feeling of freedom in the early days of her marriage, her revulsion and fear as her husband’s ‘fury and contempt’ emerge . . . The final twist is so unexpected and so gorgeously executed that it brought this reader to tears. With it, O’Farrell demonstrates fiction’s ability to offer counter narratives to those of received history, to open before us imaginative abundance and a tremulous sense of possibility. – The Boston Globe