Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel is darkly intriguing and filled with vivid images but it never feels as though it is heading to the climax it deserves.
Deeply vivid and poetic, there is no doubting that Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel has plenty of intrigue as we are taken into the world of Lucrezia, daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, however it feels as though it is building up to a climax – it seems to finish a little flatly.
Based on Lucrezia’s real life story, in which she is married to the charming Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara but tragically dies early on in the marriage of a ‘putrid fever’ which modern historians believe today to be pulmonary tuberculosis – but there were rumours that she was poisoned by her husband. The book also takes inspiration from Robert Browning’s poem ‘My Last Duchess’ and naturally the quality of O’Farrell’s writing really reflects this beautifully, with sentence structures flowing beautifully from page to page to draw the reader in effectively.
As well as finding out more about her background, the focus of the book is also in the creation of the marriage portrait that Alfonso commissions and a lot of the way the book unfolds with its vivid imagery written in great detail makes it feel like a piece of art. For me what it is lacking though is an emotional connection on a deep level – yes you feel Lucrezia’s fear and desire for freedom, but on the other side of there is a sense of disconnect from everything that is happening. I never felt as though I was able to get close to any of the characters sufficiently to have an invested interest in the outcome.
However, one of the stronger aspects of the book is the way in which O’Farrell brings central themes of male power and control to life for a modern reader to be able to relate to is incredibly nuanced and sensitively done – highlighted through Alfonso’s sudden but subtle change in moods really shows why Lucrezia feels fear and uncertainty throughout their marriage. The way in which she develops each character is equally well thought out, despite the difficulty in feeling connected to them, not helped by the fact we never really get to know them, with so much being kept from Lucrezia with regards to what is happening at court.
The way in which it switches from the present day in which Lucezia fears she has being poisoned to the past to see how she has ended up where she is, it heightens the sense of drama and tension beautifully. It is certainly fascinating and intriguing to watch unfold, but it leaves more questions than answers that can make it frustrating.
Overall, the quality of writing is of the highest standard but it feels as though the story itself feels a little bit simplistic and finishes a bit flatly. It is worth a read in many ways, but I couldn’t help but feel that there was more to be said about Lucrezia.
By Emma Clarendon
The Marriage Portrait is available to buy now.