Book Review: ‘The Marriage Portrait’ by Maggie O’Farrell

My, oh my, oh my! Now you all know how much I ADORED and have RAVED about ‘Devotion’ by Hannah Kent (CLICK HERE to read my review). If you have met me in the bookstore, I can guarantee I have put any and all of Hannah Kent’s books in your hands. For me to say that THIS BOOK – ‘The Marriage Portrait’ by Maggie O’Farrell, comes in as a close contender as one of my favourite books of 2022 is big. It’s BIG people!

‘The Marriage Portrait’ by Maggie O’Farrell is well paced novel curated to intrigue and explore the devastatingly controlled life of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara. By the age of 15 she was married to a Duke for the purposes of political and land gain. By 16 she was dead.

Set in the mid 1500’s, our opening scene introduces us to Lucrezia and her husband Alfonzo, as they dine for the very last time together before he supposedly, *as history believes* poisons her. This scene is chilling as we’re in the mind of a 16 year old girl who is contemplating what her life has come to and what to expect will come next. We then flash back in time to Lucrezia’s birth and the disconnected relationship she has growing up within her Medici family.

Lucrezia is the somewhat middle child Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and Eleanor of Toledo. If you know your Italian history, you’d know that the Medici lineage is one of the most infamous and long ruling families/Italian royalty. The marriage of Cosimo and Eleanor was a loving one, yet Eleanor’s expression of love towards Lucrezia was never the same compared to her other children.

Lucrezia had a milk mother (or wet nurse as the role is more commonly known), of whom was lower class. Lucrezia’s early life was spent in the cook room, playing with her milk mother’s daughter and not learning the skills of her royal family. This resulted in her being somewhat of an outcast with her siblings and also when it came to linear education. Her art was how she expressed herself from a very young age and it followed throughout her short life. She also has an unusually calm connection to animals.

Lucé’s connection to animals comes to the forefront of the novel when there is a piercing scene with herself, her siblings and her father, Cosimo. It was hard to remove this picture from my mind throughout the rest of the story. Maggie O’Farrell brings so much truth to Lucé’s story and it was actually rumoured that in real life, Cosmio held a collection of exotic animals in the basement of the Palazzo Vecchio. The fictional scene follows Lucrezia as she witnesses the arrival of a new animal, a tiger. She is possessed by its beauty, power and its inability to fit in with the other animals. She feel connection and comfort with this animal. They speak the same emotional and mental language. As she falls behind the group, she reached her hand in the tiger’s cage and awaits its presence. Slowly, the animal comes to her and connecting with her hand is the animals fur. It sees Lucé, it feels her, it knows her. They are two creatures but their feelings are that of one. Her Father, terrified to turn and see this animal near his daughter, seeks to destroy the animal immediately. This is ultimately a turning point in the novel.

I believe this pivotal scene mimics Lucé’s future courtship and marriage with Alfonso. He sees her as beautiful, powerful and caged. He takes advantage of this young, innocent and disconnected creature. His pure use for her is to produce heirs, yet down the line we learn that this is something that does not come easily for him.

I was seized by this story immediately and I believe you will be too. I wanted to learn about how this young girl had experienced a life completely out of her control. The 1500’s time period is one I have not explored a great deal before and Italian history is always something I will jump to read considering my own heritage. I am now adding all of Maggie O’Farrell’s books to my TBR because her writing was just spectacular. I don’t think any other author I’ve read before has made me feel the way she has. Perhaps Hannah Kent would truly be the closest. The ending of this novel was also the perfect way to close the fictional story of the beautiful Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara. I am still thinking of this novel months after reading a prerelease copy – I am glad to finally place it in book lovers hands this September.

Lucé’s love for art is her saviour at different times throughout the novel. Yet, when it comes to her famous marriage portrait arranged by Alfonso, she is taken with how the different forms of art can depict a scene or moment of a person. Her own portrait is created by a collection of specialsed artists, one of whom is selective mute – or so we think. His name is Jacopo. Jacopo will go on to play an important role in Lucé life, whether that be fictional or true – I do not know.

The Monthly Wrap: July

Well, well, well – that’s a stack and a half of books! I had a bit of a slumpy July to begin with and have now rediscovered my reading pace in the last week … so let’s get straight into it shall we 🤣📚

After finishing ‘The Marriage Portrait’ by Maggie O’Farrell, released in August and my second favourite literary novel of 2022 – closely tailing ‘Devotion’ by Hannah Kent (click here for review), I needed something to get me out of a gnarly book slump! I will be posting a book review of ‘The Marriage Portrait’ on its release day, that being the 30th of August. Yes, yes, I’m making you wait – but it’s for good reason 😍

I picked up ‘Salt and Skin’ by Eliza Henry-Jones thinking I will counteract my literary book slump with another EPIC literary fiction. Sadly, this did not go as planned. Salt and Skin covers heavy topics of grief, denial and continental travel. At this point in time, these were not topics I felt in the mood for reading (and as we know, I’m very much a mood reader). The bones of this book are fantastic and I have been pining for a pre-release copy of this to land in my hands for months now, therefore I will not give up! I am determined to read this in August and without fail, I will provide you with a review.

Mixing up my genres, I decided to dip my toes into a Fantasy – I thought this may help. Our Other Worlds Book Club had recently read and throughly enjoyed ‘Atlas Six’ by Olivie Blake and I had multiple members encourage me to pick it up. I found it available at my local library and decided now was the time. I really like the witchiness, the changing perspectives and learning each characters’ powers. The mystery behind their training and schooling is really interesting to follow and kept me gripped. However, a quarter of the way through this book, I went on holidays and it just wasn’t fitting the bill for a light, funny, holiday read – you know? Enter, ‘Today Tonight Tomorrow’ by Rachel Lynn Solomon.

Extract from 💫 Mini Review 💫:

“Ahh, this was just cute. It was cute and feel good and made me smile and made me laugh. It had all the feels and was the perfect enemies to lovers plot. Rowan Roth is a determined young woman and hard working right up to the very end of high school but her witty drive is pushed along by the likes of Neil McNair. The two have been in hefty competition with each other since the time they met. Their schooling has been a constant battle of who will be in first place and who will come in second. Rowan is set on not placing second best in their last bid for victory … winning valedictorian.

Yet as graduation looms and their end of Senior Year celebrations of a Seattle scavenger hunt kicks off, Rowan and Neil begin to realise that rather than opposing each other, they are smarter, swifter and more aligned working together than they ever realised. Slowly, they learn about one another’s lives outside of the small portion of school they experience with one another. Outside hobbies, passions and home lives come into play, furthering even more of their connection.”

I actually picked up my copy of ‘Today Tonight Tomorrow’ by Rachel Lynn Solomon while on holiday in Melbourne. I purchased it at Dymocks Melbourne, located on Collins Street. At the time, I also purchased ‘The Mars Room’ by Rachel Kushner (a literary fiction listed for the Booker Prize in 2018), ‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe’ by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (of which I read the first book last year and adored its Japanese morals, whimsical thinking and translation) & ‘The Soulmate Equation’ by Christina Lauren (recommended by an avid reader friend who also loved ‘The Unhoneymooners’ by Christina Lauren, as much as I did).

I then visited Canberra, in which I tracked down a Harry Hartog Bookseller. I purchased my copy of ‘Last Time We Met’ by Emily Houghton (contemporary romance) on that adventure! As you can tell from this stack of 5 book purchases, I was feeling the “easy reading’ vibes, with only one literary fiction thrown in there for good measure.

Back to what I actually read! Gosh Mel, way to get side tracked with book buying 😉 Presently, at home with Covid, I have had the time to finish a crime fiction novel, ‘The It Girl’ by Ruth Ware. This was suspenseful, twisty and great at developing characters into the kind of people you suspect and cannot stop following their motives. April Clarke-Cliveden was the first person Hannah Jones met at Oxford. Decked out in her luxury branded clothing, exclusive haircut and performative posture, April is clearly the kind of girl that makes herself known. She’s the ‘it girl’. April is clever, manipulative and powerful, until she ends up murdered on the closing night of her theatre performance … and Hannah is the one to find her. Moving back and forth, past to present, we now learn that Hannah is married and expecting her first child to April’s then boyfriend. Suspicious – yes ✅. Hannah also totally isolated herself from a number of their friends at the time after the murder. Suspicious – yes ✅. Hannah also gave evidence against a security footman in court to convict him of April’s murder, yet he has always plead innocent. Suspicious – yes ✅. Lot’s of things don’t add up and it made for a very interesting story. Full review coming soon 👀

Last but not least, I am currently reading and endeavour to have finished in a few days (iso and all), ‘When Only One’ by Meg Gatland-Veness. This young adult fiction opens on a school shooting in an Australian high school. The book is giving feelings of being set around the 70’s or 80’s time era with reference to things such as old Nintendos and Catholic ideologies. The heaviness and seriousness of this novel hits you immediately and I felt gripped straight away. Meg then takes us back in time through the lens of a teenage boy and his life a year prior to the tragic event. We learn of him, his life goals, his friends and who is struggling within the community – letting the reader peel back slow layers of who may have committed this horrific crime. The writing style is perfect, captivating and feeling.

So that folks, is the STACK! What have you book lovers been reading for the month of July? Have you been book buying? Share below 💬🎙

Bagged & Borrowed

My July local library borrow ✅

The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake was a must! I have already picked this up and have immediately been drawn into the witchy world. We’re following six young adult magicians as they are each hand selected for the opportunity of a lifetime. Six go in, only five come out. I love that we actually see and hear from everyone’s perspectives. It is something fresh and new to my reading habits in fantasy.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell was my second borrow. Maggie is an author that’s been around for a while, however she is new to me. I recently finished her new literary fiction landing in August, called ‘A Marriage Portrait’, which was SPECtacular!! It has snuck up behind ‘Devotion’ by Hannah Kent – my 2022 favourite thus far (read my review here). It is set in Italy … LOVE THIS, in the Medici era… LOVE THIS and centres around the marriage of Duchess Lucrezia of Ferrera, at the age of 15 and a 30 year old Alfonzo II, Duke of Ferrera. This was a marriage of convince, yet by the time Lucé turned 16, she was dead – presumed murdered by her husband. I could not put this book down! I was addicted to Maggie’s writing from the get go and look forward to following Hamnet in the same way, all while learning about Shakespeare’s son through an accurate yet fictional lens.

Have you visited your local Library this month? They’re a place of such knowledge, care and warmth 📚

Book Review: ‘Sunbathing’ by Isobel Beech

I sit here, writing this review with a cup of Italian coffee and biscuit in tow. I do not think I could have a set up any more fitting. Isobel Beech has created a novel that draws you in from the very beginning. ‘Sunbathing’ by Isobel Beech, takes place mostly in Abruzzo, Italy. The setting is described in such an emotionally and physically connecting way that you feel the Italian breeze, smell the freshly cut tomato salad with basil and olive oil, hear the gurgling of fresh coffee on the stove in the morning, and can imagine the footfalls and efforts of love in the vegetable garden below your window.

I need to preface that this novel does surround the topic of suicide, therefore please read this review with caution and/or pop back onto the blog for another book review soon xx

“… ‘Sunbathing’ explores the workings of the self in the wake of devastation and deep regret, and reveals the infinite ways that the everyday offers solace and hope.”. Transcribed from the back cover of ‘Sunbathing’. In summary, this quote covers the essence of this novel completely.

After suffering the great loss of someone close, an Australian woman books a plane ticket to Italy. She is travelling to stay with her best friend, Giulia, and her fiancé Fab, in their old stone village home. Isobel lets your mind wander as to the setting of this home, and I say home because this is the instant feeling the Beech portrays. It is a place of comfort, warmth, support and hope. We know there is a vegetable garden that Giulia tends to and waters from the buckets of water both the women go walking for every few days. We know that Fab is a writer and pops up to say “Ciao” whenever he hears his name being discussed, either inside or outside the home. We know Giulia and our female main character sit and talk over homemade meals deep into the evening, under the big shady tree in the back yard. We know our main character feels responsible for the loss of a significant figure in her life to suicide. We know that this feeling is one that plagues her mentally and emotionally. Her grief is incongruent to the way she believes is ‘expected’ of her – her grief does not follow a pattern.

It is incredibly unique how connected a reader can feel to the main character through the workings of their inner most thoughts and internal dialogue. The main character utilises online platforms to try and refresh her mind, yet only finds herself feeling more self-destructive after seeking it out. The online and in person conversations about suicide and taking ones life, she finds quite flippant. There is a sense of nobody knowing what she is going through, therefore nobody can help fix her and the significant shift to her life. However, the slow pace of life with Giulia and Fab in Abruzzo, learning to understand the language, making friends with a stray cat called Bric and taking care in planting, tending and caring for, then harvesting their own food and appreciating all it does for the human body, becomes her salvation. Day by day, the sun would rise, the coffee would boil and the routines would begin to heal her.

One of my favourite parts of this novel was seeing how the main characters perspective about Bric, the stray cat, changed over time. To begin with, Bric would only visit Giulia and Fab’s home every so often for food. He was more of a neighbourhood cat but this worried our main character. She was terrified that he wouldn’t return, he would become lost and starve. This became comparative to the loss of the significant person in her life. She felt that if she looked for Bric, fed him and cared for him, he would stay with her. Sadly, no matter how much nurturance and love she expressed to Bric, she couldn’t make him stay. Towards the end of the novel, our main character comes to accept Bric’s coming and going, taking the pressure off herself and understanding that Bric can only extend a portion of himself to her. Nor is he something she, and only she, can feel responsible for on her own.

I also really enjoyed the overarching concept of the old birthing room, turned guest bedroom, that our main character resides in while staying at Giulia and Fab’s home. Throughout the novel, our main character is rebirthing herself into a new person that lives with the loss and grief experienced in her life. It does not leave her completely, it just becomes a manageable part of the new person she’s growing into.

This is one of the most touching books I’ve read this year and I can see myself re-reading it in the future. It is surely one I will be recommending to my local literary book clubs. It is a novel to read with openness and care. I believe it is greatly worth it.

‘Devotion’ by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent has not failed to rip my heart out and then piece it back together again in her latest historical fiction novel, ‘Devotion’. I am in a book slump after reading this book and I’m finding it so hard to get the fictional characters of Hanne and Thea off my mind. Their love story is one for the ages and honestly, if you have not read this book, I strongly encourage you to find your nearest book store and buy a physical copy. Your note taking (if you’re that way inclined to annotate your books) is going to be flooded with pen marks and highlighted passages.

Growing up in the German village of Kay in 1830’s Prussia, Hanne represses her expectations of female friendships and socialising. She much prefers to be a child of nature as from a young age, believing to hear the whispers of trees, the nearby stream and the movement of air. Hanne knows that her love for nature makes her different from the other teenage girls in the village. It isn’t until she meets Thea that Hanne realises her long inherent beliefs of romantic love are also different.

Hanne’s family are set to follow their local Pastor to the new found land called South Australia. Here their community of Kay can continue to practice their Old Lutheran beliefs and spread the devotion of God. However, in order to get there they must sell everything they own and sail for months on end. (This is the part of the story where your heart will break. You will be baffled, you will find it hard to believe that Hannah has put us as the reader through this much horror, but you will also find it incredibly hard to stop reading).

At sea, they travel with their village for months on end. You feel the fear and uncertainly of being in the middle of the ocean without seeing land in sight, you smell the stagnate underneath living quarters and you sense that sickness and death is looming. It is inevitable and the inevitable does happen, but to whom? We see and feel love bloom, to then be ripped away from us. Hanne and Thea’s story falls short in so many ways but it only makes you realise how quickly your expectations of life can change in one moment.

The third section of this books is a mirage of life, yet through a different and troubling lens. It is raw and harrowing and heartbreaking. I continue to be utterly amazed at how hard hitting the writing of this novel is but yet it is delivered in such a rich and vibrant way. This is a big call to make but I truely believe that Hannah Kent had produced another national and international, award winning fiction. If this book does not move you, read it again! In my eyes, Hannah Kent is the reason we read fiction.