Monday 10 July 2023

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT by Maggie O'Farrell (Audiobook narrated by Genevieve Gaunt)

"Beautiful, lyrical writing in places, and always an absorbing story."

Yvonne Coppard
is a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and writer of fiction for children and adults. See more on her website.

In 1560, fifteen-year-old Lucrezia di Cosimo Medici was married to Alfonso d’Este, the hereditary Prince of Ferrara. The marriage contract, a political alliance, had been signed two years earlier but Alfonso agreed to wait until Lucrezia reached puberty before consummating the marriage. It was a short and seemingly unhappy union. Within a year, Lucrezia was dead and there were rumours that her husband had arranged for her to be poisoned. Don’t be put off by knowing her fate before you start listening; even if you prefer stories with a happy ending, this one will be worth the journey.

From the tiny amount of information recorded about Lucrezia, O’Farrell creates a novel full of tension and suspense. She takes Lucrezia from a loved and protected child to a hopeful, then anxious, then terrified bride. Lucrezia tells her own story, in the present tense, and there is a lot of back and forth between the present moment and her life in Florence. For the audio listener, this means you need to pay proper attention to the date and location given at the start of each track.

Genevieve Gaunt gives a convincing evocation of a child bride who is forced to grow up too fast and use all her wit to survive. Some readers of the book have told me they found the pace too slow, with too much real-time detail of Lucrezia’s thoughts and memories. For me, this was an important part of the novel’s success. Maybe hearing a convincing voice, rather than reading the text, is what makes the difference. The listener is inside Lucrezia’s mind as she struggles to make sense of her situation, and then to cope with the growing awareness that her life is in danger and there is no one who can protect her. It’s beautiful, lyrical writing in places, and it’s always an absorbing story.

No spoilers, but a tip for the listener: finish the book before you listen to (or read about) O’Farrell’s explanation of how she approached the historical facts. Resist the urge to know ‘the truth’. Trust me, ignorance will make the story, and its ending, so much more satisfying.

The Marriage Portrait is published by Tinder Press.

See also: Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet reviewed by Anne Cassidy

and a general appreciation of Maggie O'Farrell's writing, including After You'd Gone, by Graeme Fife.

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