THE PLOT: ‘The Marriage Portrait’ by Maggie O’Farrell is historical fiction set in mid-1500’s Italy. Lucrezia is the youngest daughter of the Medici family. She never measures up to her older sisters and is considered strange and quiet as she loves animals and painting. Always overlooked, she is suddenly thrust into the spotlight when she’s forced to marry the Duke of Ferrara at only fifteen years old for a political alliance. Her marriage quickly falls apart as she struggles to conceive and as her mental and physical health deteriorates, she worries that her husband is trying to kill her.
RATING: This book has all the elements that I usually love. It’s set in my favourite country during one of my favourite periods in history and I was excited for court intrigues in this setting. However, at first I really struggled due to the slow pace and endless repetition. It was much more about the lyrical writing, rich atmosphere and interior thoughts of Lucrezia than the external plot, which surprised me. But I’m glad I persisted because the novel picked up and the second half was excellent. Overall, the brilliant ending bumped this up to three and a half stars for me. Definitely not my favourite Maggie O’Farrell, or my favourite book in this genre, but worth a read if it’s tempting you.
GOOD BITS: This book is all about the lyrical writing, which was hugely atmospheric and impressive. Although Lucrezia was a damp squib as a protagonist for me because she, understandably, didn’t really do anything for the first 150 pages, her character arc is really strong and I loved how she grew by the end of the novel. I also loved the little snippets with her sisters and mother, and wished there was more of this. When the plot develops at the Ferrara Court and we learn more of her husband is when I really got into this book and the ending was perfection.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: Although the opening chapters are captivating, much of Lucrezia’s early life is spent stuck in the nursery and she doesn’t have much freedom or agency. This means the reader isn’t able to get immersed in the life of the Medici court and we’re stuck with her repetitive inner life and very few plot points. Although the reader knows we are building up to Lucrezia’s marriage, the wedding doesn’t take place until a third of the way through the book. This feels like a delayed inciting incident and I feel like the opening could have been heavily condensed.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘The Mirror and the Light’ by Hilary Mantel and ‘The Birth of Venus’ by Sarah Dunant. Like reading Mantel, you’ll need to be a lover of long, poetic descriptions and foreboding atmosphere to enjoy this book. But, if you persevere, the plot comes together in a very satisfying way.