Monday, September 05, 2022

Maggie O'Farrell's The Marriage Portrait reimagines the life of Renaissance duchess Lucrezia de' Medici

Following the critically acclaimed Hamnet (2020), O’Farrell creates another mesmerizing portrait of a Renaissance-era woman whose life is shrouded in mystery.

My Last Duchess,” Robert Browning’s poem about Lucrezia de’ Medici (1545-1561), gave voice to the longstanding rumors that its subject was murdered by her husband, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. Was she, and if so, why?

Daughter of Florence’s large ruling family, Lucrezia, a restless dreamer who adores animals and creating art, is devastated to learn, at age 12, about plans for her to wed her late sister’s fiancé. While Alfonso appears charming, she later witnesses a cruel streak in his character.

O’Farrell shines at instilling exquisitely tactile scenes with human feeling, such as Lucrezia’s wedding preparations and her sense of inner strength while viewing the sunrise transform the sky one morning at Alfonso’s country villa.

The author proves equally skilled at evoking suspense. This she accomplishes by alternating between Lucrezia’s earlier life and the time when Alfonso brings Lucrezia, his sixteen-year-old bride, to an isolated stone fortress—perhaps to kill her. The potential motive won’t surprise anyone familiar with noblewomen’s dynastic roles.

Historical-fiction readers will love the cultural details, while Lucrezia’s plight speaks to modern themes of gaslighting and women’s agency. The leitmotif of “underpainting”—truths hidden beneath the surface—echoes throughout this poetically written, multilayered novel.

My recommendation for YAs: Literary-fiction readers who enjoy female-centered narratives will sympathize with Lucrezia’s quest to evade a terrible fate; includes sexual situations. 

The Marriage Portrait will be published on Tuesday in the U.S. by Knopf.  I contributed this (starred) review for Booklist's Sept. 1 issue.