The Marriage Portrait: A Novel, by Maggie O’Farrell — A Review

From the desk of Theresa Smith: 

“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 (1545-1561), third daughter of Cosimo l de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, fateful first wife of Alfonso d ’Este, Duke of Ferrara.

A Doomed Marriage

History reports that Lucrezia died of pulmonary tuberculosis, but it was rumored 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 realizes 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.

Breaking Down the Walls of the Citadel

“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 Trauma Behind a Child Bride

The structure of this novel makes for a highly compelling read. After the opening, whereby Lucrezia realizes 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.

Finding Her Power

“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 rumor 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.”

Magnificent, Captivating, & Sublime

Oh Maggie O’Farrell, your words make my heart sing. Fans of Hamnet will not be disappointed by her latest release, 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.

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

5 out of 5 Stars


GUEST REVIEW BIO

Theresa Smith is a writer, avid reader, keen reviewer, book collector, drinker of all tea blends originating from Earl Grey, and modern history enthusiast. I enjoy reading many genres but have a particular interest in historical fiction.

Former Challenge/Team Coordinator and Historical Fiction Editor with the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Visit Theresa at her blog, Theresa Smith Writes.


BOOK INFORMATION

  • The Marriage Portrait: A Novel, by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Knopf (September 6, 2022)
  • Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (352) pages
  • ISBN: 978-0593320624
  • Genre: Historical Fiction

ADDITIONAL INFO | ADD TO GOODREADS

We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Knopf © 2022; text Theresa Smith © 2022, austenprose.com.

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