Friday, July 29, 2016

Tracy Chevalier's "The Virgin Blue"

Since 1997 Tracy Chevalier has been writing historical fiction novels with strong foundational history bases through which the characters move. It is clear that author Tracy Chevalier and I share a love of art history. In the late 90s I read Chevalier's popular book Girl with a Pearl Earring, like most novel readers of that time, and with it I discovered the genre of historical fiction.

Set at the time of Johannes Vermeer, part of the narrative and part of the action of Girl with the Pearl Earring describes the delicacy and dedication it took to create both paint colors and canvas. Part of the action included the running of the household and the financing of Vermeer's work by sponsors and art patrons. Chevalier's love of history shone bright and clear in that novel and drew me in like a moth to the genre of historical fiction.

Since Girl with the Pearl Earring I have read dozens of historical fiction novels. Some are more based in real history than others while some are less history and more fiction. I prefer the very historical books. If you like the genre I can recommend three favorites that I've read in the recent year or two:  Benjamin Franklin's Bastard: A Novel by Sally Cabot, Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull, and  
Mr. Emerson's Wife by Amy Belding Brown. I have about a dozen more historical fiction books on my ereader that I haven't read yet but that I'm looking forward to.

In this book The Virgin Blue we follow two characters on parallel paths. Current-day American Ella Turner and 16th century peasant woman Isabelle du Moulin lead dual storylines, my favorite type of set up.  Ella Turner and her husband are temporarily living in France for her husband's work. Ella struggles to fit into the small French town they are living in and begins to bristle a bit at the edges. Being of French descent she begins to do some genealogy. During her research Ella begins to have nightmares of a red-haired woman wearing a blue cloth.

The second storyline with Isabelle, a hidden Catholic in a town of Heugonots, is accused of witchcraft and is generally a pariah in town. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew in Paris, the murder of thousands of French Protestants, Huguenots, in Paris beginning 24 August 1572, sends waves of persecution throughout France. Being a Catholic was...not good. The family Isabelle is forced to marry into is quite cruel, rigid, and very anti-Catholic. Isabelle and her daughter Marie, named after the Virgin, are treated cruelly, so cruelly that Ella of the 20th century feels the pain of their treatment.

Suffice it to say, religious persecution is not new. Although the book never uses the words ghost or reincarnation, the reader can't possibly get through the book without wondering if some sort of spiritual hanky-panky isn't at play

I can't use the words elegant or scholarly to describe this early Chevalier novel because it lacks grace, sophistication, and balance at certain points in the story, qualities that her later books possess. But this is an early book and the author does read as a diamond in the rough in this book and I can't help but wonder if I had read this book before reading later Chevalier books, if I would have loved it more by not having the comparison available to me.

My favorite quote by Tracy Chevalier: It's a rare book that wins the battle against the drooping eyelids. 

I absolutely adore the concept of taking a work of art, real historical events, and creating a story of dramatic human suffering and struggle. Chevalier is a master of this formula and I highly recommend her books. As for this book, I give is a high six stars out of ten.

My THANKS if you can help me figure out why Ella's eczema was mentioned so often.

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