BOOK REVIEW: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Book Review

Title: The Marriage Portrait
Author:  Maggie O’Farrell
Imprint: Knopf Canada
Released: September 6, 2022
Pages: 352
ISBN-13: 978-1039005631
Stars:  4.00

I wanted to read Maggie O’Farrell‘s latest book, The Marriage Portrait because I enjoyed her earlier work. I loved After You’d Gone, The Distance Between Us, and The Hand That First Held Mine. I look for her work when browsing used bookstores, which is a pleasurable hobby. So, I was delighted to win an uncorrected proof of this book in a giveaway on Goodreads. The version of the book I read was 436 pages long.

I have not yet read Hamnet, which was critically acclaimed, but after reading The Marriage Portrait, set in Renaissance Italy, I can say that O’Farrell writes exquisitely about 16th-century Florence. Her descriptions of the setting, architecture, fashion, the Medici nobility, the poverty of the plebes, and the tumultuous emotions of her protagonist, Lucrezia, are flawless.

Lucrezia de’ Medici was the fifth child of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. When her elder sister Maria died, Cosimo gave Lucrezia’s hand in marriage to her fiancée. O’Farrell conjures Lucrezia’s wedding day at the age of thirteen to Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, who is more than twice her age, in marvellous, intimate detail, and we can empathize with everything the young girl experiences. Likewise, her portrayal of the tiger’s anger and grief earlier in the novel is authentic and heart-wrenching.

O’Farrell’s ability to depict dread is astonishing. Women of our time would never be able to understand how terrible it would have been to have lived in the 16th century without the work of gifted storytellers like O’Farrell. Can you imagine never being allowed to leave your room without permission? Can you imagine being married off to a twenty-four-year-old man when you are thirteen? We feel everything Lucrezia feels and find ourselves holding our breath at times. Yet, Lucrezia’s ability to find solace in her cruel world through her art is inspiring. I rooted for her throughout the book.

I would love to see O’Farrell write a book about Lucrezia and Jacopo, the artist if there was a chance that they escaped together. The way she wrote the ending was beautiful. However, I believe The Marriage Portrait was inspired by Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess,” and we know that Lucrezia died at the age of sixteen, cursed by her genealogy and the customs of the times.

In the version of the book I read, its pacing drags, with some of its 60–84–page chapters set in the days before or just after Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso, and I would prefer they had been chopped into thirds. Other chapters, set in the book’s present, which excitingly depict Lucrezia’s fear of being murdered by her husband, are no more than a few pages. What struck me most about this version is how long almost every sentence is (especially in the first third of the book); many are whole paragraphs, which can make for a tedious reading experience. If you were to read passages out loud, you would often gasp for air. I hope that the fully edited version tightened O’Farrell‘s magnificent prose just a little to improve its fluidity, but overall this is a captivating story.

Maggie O’Farrell

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