Book Review The Marriage Portrait Maggie O’Farrell


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?


Set amid the opulence of upper class families in the mid 1500s in Italy, this is the story of Lucrezia and it follows her life from babyhood until her mid teens. She is the child of rich and privileged parents (Cosimo & Eleanora de’Medici) who love each other and all of their many children. Lucrezia is the middle child marooned between her older and younger siblings. She begins life as a difficult, fretful baby and becomes a spirited, intelligent and artistic young girl. When her older sister Maria dies just before her arranged marriage into another prominent family headed by Duke Alfonso II, it becomes Lucrezia’s fate to take the place of her sister. When barely into her teens and against her wishes, she is married to the 27 year old Duke.

Alfonso is a complex character who switches between kind and thoughtful husband to ruthless, cruel tyrant. Lucrezia’s role is clearly to provide a male heir to ensure Alfonso’s family line. She is kept in opulent surroundings in a heavily fortified palace as a virtual prisoner. O’Farrell’s writing is wonderful and she brings her characters vividly to life. Throughout the novel she sustains an air of foreboding and menace.

The female members of our group found this to be a harrowing but enthralling read and found the time period and setting of the story very engaging. Our 2 male members, however, did not enjoy the story and found the manner in which it was told (by changing back and forth in time and place) very confusing.

Rating – 7/10

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