The Marriage Portrait

Written by Maggie O'Farrell
Review by Fiona Alison

Maggie O’Farrell follows her award-winning Hamnet with another touching tragedy of a young life cut short. Lucrezia de’ Medici is 15 when, upon her sister Maria’s unexpected death, she is married off to Maria’s fiancé, the Duke of Ferrara—even forced to wear her sister’s wedding dress. Her desperate pleas to remain in Tuscany fall on deaf ears. Married almost a year in 1561, and not yet pregnant, she fears for her life.

Alone with her husband in a fortress outside of Ferrara, and deprived of her own household, Lucrezia contemplates her manner of death… and her short life. She guides us through her lonely childhood, the age gap between her older and younger siblings setting her apart. An intelligent and willful child, her only consolation is her art. She tiptoes on eggshells around Alfonso and his enigmatic sisters, never sure where she stands. Alfonso rules his estates and family with an iron fist, congenial enough, but a menacing presence all the same. Witness to an act of unspeakable cruelty, Lucrezia is compelled to heed her sister-in-law’s warning that she will be blamed if there is no heir, no matter that the much older Alfonso has never fathered a child.

The Marriage Portrait is a visceral immersion in Gothic suspense: compelling, gut-wrenching, with ominously dark undertones layering the narrative. The raw chill which pervades the fortress rivals the icy fear gripping Lucrezia’s heart. Although relating the tragic life of a terrified young woman, O’Farrell grants Lucrezia an autonomy she never achieved in life and the sole surviving portrait makes one wonder what those averted eyes might tell us. O’Farrell’s innate grasp of the human condition, her stylistic word and phrase repetition, effortless tense switching, and vivid illumination of a virtually unknown historical figure make for another superb achievement, brilliantly rendered.