I have a handful of authors who belong to a select category labeled “I will read anything you write.” I find their prose irresistibly compelling, no matter the subject, no matter if the characters are likable, no matter if (gasp!) the ending is hopeful. Ann Patchett. Emily St. John Mandel. And Maggie O’Farrell.
When I read the description of her newest novel, The Marriage Portrait, I thought, I’m not sure I want to read a historical novel about a girl in Renaissance Italy, who is raised in privilege for the sole purpose of making an advantageous marriage, makes said marriage, and is dead less than a year later. You know the end before you even begin. And then I remembered listening to Hamnet, subtitled, “A Novel of the Plague.” Who wants to read that in the middle of a pandemic? But it was elegiacally sublime, meticulously crafted with the most perfect of perfect endings. So I picked up The Marriage Portrait, and it swept me away. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Our heroine, Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici, is depicted with a depth and complexity that takes the reader from her earliest days as part of an increasing brood of noble offspring meant to further the Medici’s dynastic power, to her unusual artistic abilities, to her eventual marriage to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Florence. Throughout the narrative we have the sense that Lucrezia is a person seeking to be as free as she can, even as the prison of her birth and sex close around her. O’Farrell’s descriptive genius inhabits the very atmosphere of this book. She brings to life the smells of an exotic menagerie housed in a palazzo basement, the heat of a summer garden in the countryside, the confines of a room one is not allowed to leave. I was completely immersed in Lucrezia’s world, and increasingly perplexed on what O’Farrell was going to do with the plot given her parameters. Let’s just say I should never doubt her again and allow myself go along for the ride.
Come pick up a copy of The Marriage Portrait today, and if you want to see Maggie O’Farrell in person, she’ll be at Seattle Arts and Lectures on October 11th!
— Lori, Island Books, Mercer Island, WA