Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The Virgin Blue - Tracy Chevalier

The Virgin Blue is Tracy Chevalier's first novel. It tells the twin stories of Isabella and Ella, two women living 400 years apart in the same French village.

Isabella, living in 16th century France, is the daughter of a poor farmer, obliged to marry a bullying neighbour after she becomes pregnant to him. In her childhood, the villagers had driven out the Catholic priest and begin to follow the 'Truth' (new Protestant religion) of John Calvin. Isabella, however, is always regarded with suspicion by her husband and neighbours due to her red hair which is associated with the Virgin Mary. When their protector is murdered by Catholic nobles, they are forced to flee to Geneva. But her husband brings his mistrust and suspicions with him.

Four hundred years later Ella, an American, comes to live in France with her architect husband. While trying to settle into village life and learn the language and local customs, she decides to try and trace the history of her family. For reasons that never really become clear she emotionally disengages from her husband and becomes entangled with the arrogant librarian assisting her in her family research. She runs away from her baffled husband to distant relatives living in Geneva and discovers the horrific truth of the life and death of her ancestors.

I had really mixed feelings when I was reading this book. On the one hand, Chevalier's skill in evoking a time long-gone by and drawing the reader into an understanding of the everyday life and options of a 16th century farm girl is undeniably magnificent.

On the other hand modern-day Ella totally irritated and infuriated me. I had no understanding or empathy for what she felt or why she acted the way she did, and could only feel sympathy for her suffering husband.

It is perhaps telling that Chevalier's later books are almost totally set in historic times, where her rare gift of bringing history to life is showcased in all its glory.

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