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The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell - Review

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

I chose this book last year as my choice for my book club. I had bought it when it came out around September 2022 and I thought it would be a good book for book club. It was September's choice and I picked it up right at the end of August so that I could get it read as it's quite a hefty book. I wanted to read it in a certain number of days so I broke it down into pages per day and actually ended up keeping to that. It helped that I had an empty weekend which meant I had a lot of reading time in the mornings and at night. It is worth every one of it's 450 pages, in my opinion. 

I can't even remember why I bought it, but I probably saw a review of it or something. I have really enjoyed the Maggie O'Farrell books I've read so far - The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox which I read in the late noughties, and I Am I Am I Am which I read in 2019. So I knew this would be good too. By the time I picked it up though I had totally forgotten what it was about. 

It's about Lucrezia de' Medici, a princess of the Medici family who was brought up in Florence, firstly in Palazzo Vecchio and then Palazzo Pitti. At the beginning of the book she is at a country fort with her husband, Alfonso, and she is utterly certain that he is going to kill her. He brought her there without any of her ladies in waiting or other staff, and by the end of the book we have seen just how cruel he was to her and why she would definitely think he was about to kill her. 

But we also read about Lucrezia's early life in the palace, her family and her education and how she was ostracised from the family. She had two sisters and several brothers, but somehow never fitted into the bosom of the family. Her eldest sister, Maria, was betrothed to Alfonso - who is over a decade older than Lucrezia - but she died and it was decided that he would marry Lucrezia instead. She has a little reprieve as she hasn't yet reached menstruation, but as soon as she does, the two are married and Lucrezia is off to Ferrera, never to see Florence again. 

As with any novel about real people, it is hard for the reader to decide what is real and what isn't real. I resisted the urge to read about Lucrezia's life until after I had finished the book, although I did read that she did die aged sixteen and that there were rumours that her husband had poisoned her, but that it is now thought she died of TB. I think because of that I did see some of the twists of the book coming, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book. At the end of the book there's a note about some of the ways that the book deviates from reality, which I found really interesting. I think for book club I will put together some notes about that for discussion. It is interesting in how much novelists can deviate from reality and at what remove - I feel like Lucrezia de' Medici is up for grabs because she died five hundred years ago. There are few people left who would care about her, surely? But the closer we get to today, the less readers will let authors get away with stuff like this - imagine writing a similar book about the Queen, for example. 

I also think it is interesting about how little power or choice women had in this period. Lucrezia is a pawn in her own life, used between powerful men to gain even more power. She lives a spoilt, pampered life, but she also has no rights to choose what to wear, how to wear her hair, etc. I liked the little rebellions she had, I really liked her as a character.

I also really liked the stuff about the painting of 'the marriage portrait' which doesn't actually exist but which poet Robert Browning wrote about too. I hope most of that stuff was true because it was so interesting!

In all I'm giving this five out of five because I really liked it! I'm interested to see what everyone at book club thought about it!

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