wedding portrait, Maggie O’Farrell’s scintillating and propelling new novel could have been titled The beautiful and the damned (with apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald). Set in late Renaissance Italy, amid the opulence and intrigue of dynastic politics, the book chronicles the brief life and mysterious death of the aristocrat Lucrezia de’ Medici (1545-1561 ), third daughter and fifth child of Cosimo, the vigorous, Machiavellian Duke of Florence, and his brilliant Spanish wife, Eleonora. Less than a century after the court of Lorenzo “Il Magnifico” de’ Medici dazzled Tuscany, with its artists and philosophers, and its embarrassment of riches, the importance of the family declined, necessitating an infusion of wealth and of dynamism. Thirteen-year-old Lucrezia is married to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, a decade older, granting her father’s wish for an alliance between the two city-states. (His older sister, Maria, had been betrothed to Alfonso but died of an infection shortly after her engagement.) This barter—a young woman’s future for social prestige—fuels the story of lust and betrayal. by O’Farrell.

During the freezing winter of 1561, at the age of 16, Lucrezia rode on horseback with her husband to a lodge in a secluded forest, soothing her whim. He is a courteous Heathcliff: she both fears and adores him, the broad span of his shoulders, his handsome face and his quirky humor. He is also tender with his fiancée. But during their first dinner in the dressing room, she is struck, like lightning from heaven, by the realization that Alfonso wants her dead; its charming facade hides a devil. (His sister confided he was capable of anything.) He feeds her soup and venison, douses her with wine, as she imagines herself floating against the ceiling, gazing at the preamble of her death as if she was watching a play. (O’Farrell employs a disembodied motif in several scenes.) The next morning, a sudden illness sweeps over his body. Isolated, she cannot ask for help; all she can do is plan an escape, aided by her loyal Tuscan servant, Emilia.

O’Farrell goes from Lucrezia’s final days at the lodge to the Duchess’ backstory, beginning with her conception in the map room of her parents’ palace. Eleonora later blames these cards for her daughter’s adventurous and stubborn personality, a kind of wishful thinking. By day, Lucrezia absorbs her tutors’ lessons like a prodigy, urging her sisters on their Greek and Latin while demonstrating a talent for drawing, a mastery of the Renaissance breakthrough of perspective methods, such as vanishing point. At night, she slips away from the childhood bedroom she shares with her siblings and Sofia, their toothless caretaker, a bit of a girl who hangs around the secret passageways and ramparts of the palace. She is a daughter of privilege with a rebellious side, more at home with the wild animals of her father’s menagerie than with courtiers and cardinals.

More from Oprah Daily

O’Farrell is pivoting his acclaimed previous novel, Hamnet; there’s the same seductive attention to texture – candlelit dinners, brocaded fabrics, the smells of sex – and, most importantly, the theme of women’s lives circumscribed by paternalistic societies and unforgiving expectations. After the wedding, Lucrezia poses for her portrait, pondering her destiny, the rules that hand her over to a life she would never have chosen. As Hamnet‘s Agnès, Lucrezia is an attractive and assertive guide, comfortable in her skin and who dares to trade the luxury of status for a more authentic personality.

O’Farrell’s technique appeals, underscoring Lucrezia’s mounting panic, as in this repetition of “husband” and the innovative use of appositive clauses: “Her husband, who intends to kill her, either by his own hand or on order from another, takes the end of his napkin and dabs his cheek with its pointed corner, as if a soup stain on the face were a matter of importance. Her husband, who intends to kill her, spends a moment pushing a stray hair from her forehead, then finally pushes it back behind her ear. Her husband, the murderer, says over his shoulder to the servants that the cook must be told to add more salt. As if seasoning was more important to them now. Her husband, who will soon kill her, holds out his hand, as if intending to intertwine his cold fingers in his palm. This is what proves too much for her. She jumps into life, pulls her hand away, picks up her spoon and plunges it into her bowl.

The wedding portrait: a novel

The wedding portrait: a novel

Now 12% off

Hilary Mantel’s Tudor Trilogy features prominently here, announcing itself in O’Farrell’s lush descriptions and understanding of politics; but wedding portrait, although he writes fluently and turns the page, does not have the emotional capacity to hall of wolves Where Hamnet. Yet few writers play so confidently with the cogs of language and historical figures drawn from the past. O’Farrell deftly reduces Lucrezia to her own vanishing point, even though the Duchess’ likely cause of death was a pulmonary embolism rather than poison. O’Farrell’s creative license beautifully frames the chasms that open between husband and wife, involving an institution that has galvanized our canonical writers, including Victorian poet Robert Browning, whose dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” was inspired by the portrait of Lucrezia by Branzino. As Browning’s speaker says of the painting: “I gave orders; / Then all the smiles stopped together. She stands there / As if she were alive.

This content is imported from OpenWeb. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, on their website.