Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Audio Book Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

Genre: Adult Historical Fiction/Audio Book
Pub. Date: September 6, 2022
Publisher: RandomHouse
Source: Library
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads says, "The author of award-winning Hamnet brings the world of Renaissance Italy to jewel-bright life in this unforgettable fictional portrait of the captivating young duchess Lucrezia de’ Medici as she makes her way in a troubled court. Florence, the 1550s. Lucrezia, third daughter of the grand duke, is comfortable with her obscure place in the palazzo: free to wonder at its treasures, observe its clandestine workings, and devote herself to her own artistic pursuits. But when her older sister dies on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight: the duke is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father just as quick to accept on her behalf. Having barely left girlhood behind, Lucrezia must now enter an unfamiliar court whose customs are opaque and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her new husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate he appeared to be before their wedding, the aesthete happiest in the company of artists and musicians, or the ruthless politician before whom even his formidable sisters seem to tremble? As Lucrezia sits in constricting finery for a painting intended to preserve her image for centuries to come, one thing becomes worryingly clear. In the court’s eyes, she has one duty: to provide the heir who will shore up the future of the Ferranese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, the new duchess’s future hangs entirely in the balance. Full of the beauty and emotion with which she illuminated the Shakespearean canvas of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell turns her talents to Renaissance Italy in an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman’s battle for her very survival."


Lucrezia de'Medici is 15 years old and find herself in a political marriage to the Duke of Ferrara since her sister, originally betrothed to him, has died. She has to leave everything behind in Florence and is thrown headfirst into the Duke's dangerous court. Lucrezia is ahead of her time though and finds herself more often than not in conflict with the court. Lucrezia is also artistic and loves to paint imaginary creatures, but has to cover them up with something more "acceptable." Her one job is to produce an heir, but as she struggles more and more in the Duke's court, she is worried that she will be poisoned. In fact, Maggie O'Farrell's The Marriage Portrait is based on a true story about Lucrezia, whose circumstances around her fate, to this day, are still questioned.

Lucrezia is someone I found immediately captivating in The Marriage Portrait. How could you not feel for her? When her sister dies, she is now thrust into the role of a political bride to the Duke, who she is slowly realizing is not a friendly man.  She is fifteen and shouldn't be thinking about producing an heir for the duke, but that is her one job. Without an heir, Lucrezia's future is in question. Even when she makes friends with the Duke's sisters, things become even more complicated and everyone at court must deal with the Duke's fury, which is a side he didn't show Lucrezia until after the wedding. Slowly she starts worry if he will poison her and how can can survive this?

I love that O'Farrell sheds light on a young woman whose story is often forgotten. O'Farrell was inspired by Robert Browning's poem, "The Last Duchess" and I don't want to give the ending away, but if you know Lucrezia's story, then you know of some of the questions that still hang in the air. I was still very invested in this tale as O'Farrell is a master storyteller and the audio version of The Marriage Portrait was very compelling. Also, O'Farrell paints a portrait of a dangerous time in Renaissance Italy, especially for young women who are merely pawns in a bigger political game. 

If you enjoy smart historical fiction, O'Farrell is at the top of her game. The Marriage Portrait is one of my favorite books of 2022 and even though it can be dark (and sad!) at times, I was completely invested in Lucrezia's story, thanks to O'Farrell's memorable writing. Have you read The Marriage Portrait? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.



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