Book Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

The Marriage Portrait – Maggie O’Farrell (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2022)

Lucrezia is the youngest daughter of Medicis of Florence. Raised in luxury but strictly watched over by her mother and father, her life as a young girl in the 1550s is dictated for her from birth. Yet there is a wildness to her, something untameable at her very core, that she carries with her. When Lucrezia’s oldest sister dies before her marriage, Lucrezia is chosen to step in and marry the duke of Ferrara. He is in his mid-twenties while Lucrezia is only fifteen. Her new husband is a mercurial character – humourous and funny one moment, dangerous and frightening the next. He is a mean searching for power and a means to stabilize his own position and he will not let anyone stand in the way of that, even his young bride.

She is no longer the person she has always been but someone else she doesn’t yet know, with a different name, a different home. She now belongs to this man standing before her.

The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell

Historically, Lucrezia is perhaps best known for being the duchess in Robert Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess”. What we know of Lucrezia is that she married young and died within less than two years. Her death was blamed on illness but from the very beginning there were rumours that her husband had murdered her.

O’Farrell sticks largely to the historical facts of what is known of the time and place but she brings these characters to life beautifully. Lucrezia is a wonderful heroine. She is curious and artistic – she loves to paint – and stubborn and naive. Although she lives a life of privilege for her time, she has almost no freedom and certainly none to make decisions about her own life. In her father’s home, her time is decided by her parents who aim to mold her to be a wife, to be wed to strengthen their own alliances. In her husband’s home, she ends up being even more like a prisoner. The duke, Alfonso, is in need of an heir to secure his tenuous position and so Lucrezia becomes more like a prize breeding mare than a human being. We get a hint of her fate early on when, as a child, Lucrezia learns of the story of Iphigenia:

Iphigenia walked blithely to what she thought was a marriage altar but turned out to be a sacrificial altar. Agamemnon slit her throat with a knife.

O’ Farrell keeps the tension at the fore throughout the story by interspersing Lucrezia’s childhood and introduction to marriage with the present tense where Alfonso has brought her to a remote hunting lodge and she believes he has poisoned her.

Alfonso himself is particularly well-drawn. In him, O’Farrell creates a multi-faceted villain. A product of his time, he is no more capable of seeing Lucrezia as an independent human being than he could view his horse as his equal. Yet at times he is kind to her. He takes care of her in many ways, he is capable of thinking of her wants and preferences. This makes it all the more terrifying when he turns so quickly on her. He is a man that allows no dissension and whose greatest fear is being perceived as weak. This makes it easy for him to be absolutely heartless and again O’Farrell does an excellent job at showing just how heartless Alfonso can be until both the reader and Lucrezia have no trouble believing he means to kill her.

As a whole, this book made me want to read more about Florence and Italy in the 16th century and I was lost down a rabbit trail of wikipedia articles about the Medicis for a while after I finished. Very strongly recommended!

19 thoughts on “Book Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell”

  1. Oh good, I’m so glad to know you liked this one – I think that tips the scale for me to read it. I actually already bought it but then I saw some mixed reviews, so I haven’t started it – but it really does sound fascinating. Thanks and Happy New Year! 🙂

    1. I’ve read one by O’Farrell before – Hamnet – and the style is ver similar. I can see how the way she writes and approaches storytelling might not be for everyone but I really like her style. She really brings the history alive.

  2. I haven’t read any of O’Farrell’s work before – I saw her compared to someone whose writing I don’t much like, though I now can’t remember who – but this does sound very appealing.

    1. This is the second book I’ve read by her (I’ve read Hamnet) and I found the style and storytelling to be quite similar between the two. I really like her writing but she does lean heavily on description so I can see how it might not be for everyone.

    1. She does a great job of showing the privilege that these families have while also making it clear how a woman like Lucrezia is worth about the same as a prized animal. It’s chilling.

  3. I really like O’Farrell’s writing style. I’ve read two of her other books (Hamnet and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox) and was wondering whether to give this one a try. Your review makes me think I should!

    1. I’d only read Hamnet before this but the style is quite similar. I suspect if you like her other writing you will enjoy this one too!

  4. I typically have a hard time with books from before 1800, simply because I don’t have enough of the history, culture, etc. to understand what’s going on, but this sounds well written. I love that comparison of wife and horse. What’s interesting is I’ve read novels in which men treat their horses better than their wives. You treat a horse well, it treats you well; that sort of thing. Are you going to pick up another novel from this era soon?

    1. I took several Europe history courses in university which end up helping a lot with books like this! But I think you could probably read this without much background knowledge.

      On the one hand, Lucrezia is very well taken care of. She’s educated quite well, she has good and plentiful food, she lives in beautiful palaces. But she has no personal agency and is essentially a prisoner. She’s important to her husband because he needs an heir but he clearly doesn’t see her as any sort of equal to himself.

      I don’t have any plans to return to this era soon. It was more the author that drew me in than the timeframe.

    2. In college I took more African and African American history classes. One was a graduate class on Black folks in Detroit. That was the whole focus, and there was SO MUCH.

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