The Marriage Portrait

It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can be waiting for months for a single book to become available from the library; but then five arrive on the reserve shelf all at once. In such a case it's necessary to drop whatever books you might be in the middle of at the time and rush to finish the ones from the reserves, because there is a still a queue of dozens of eager readers waiting for their turn.

So I dashed through Maggie O'Farrell's The Marriage Portrait, which I think I heard about on the ABC's Bookshelf program, which has alerted me to a great deal of new fiction lately. This is my fourth Maggie O'Farrell book and she has always come through with the goods; The Marriage Portrait was particularly anticipated after the recent success of Hamnet. I thoroughly enjoyed it -- the interleaving of Lucrezia's childhood and the early days of her marriage, with the tense sojourn in the hunting lodge during which she is convinced that her husband is going to murder her.

Some themes, such as male violence against women, are timeless, it seems, and O'Farrell does a marvellous job in planting the seeds of apprehension and then outright terror. The writing is lively and sensuous, wonderfully recreating the privileged, yet constrained, Renaissance world of the Medicis and Estes that captivated me in high school history lessons (we spent so long savouring the Renaissance that we hardly left any time for the Reformation). At least one critic has complained that teenage Lucrezia's growing sense of her own individuality is anachronistic, but I didn't find it jarring -- not compared with the teen-speak of The Other Merlin, at least! (And both books feature arranged marriages -- not too surprisingly, I guess.) 

Possibly I failed to do The Marriage Portrait full justice, because I sped through it so fast; but I found it a tasty and satisfying meal. I can't wait to see what O'Farrell tackles next.

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