“All she knew was that she was being borne away from something she loved more than anything else in the world, that the distance between them was increasing, with every step taken.”

Maggie O’Farrell is an author who has been on my radar for a bit, but one I’ve never read until I decided to shoot for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist and picked up The Marriage Portrait (Knopf 2022). (O’Farrell is no stranger to the list as she’s the 2020 winner for Hamnet.)

The Marriage Portrait is based on a woman who was but a footnote in history, but who stirred rumors that become lore that would eventually inspire Robert Browning to write “My Last Duchess.” She serves as O’Farrell’s muse as well. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

History will tell us that Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici was wed to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara when she was 15 and that she was dead less than a year later. Rumors claimed her husband had poisoned her. This isn’t a spoiler – the novel opens with this historical note – but what unfolds is the heartbreaking story of a young girl with a free spirit who was born to provide further security to her family’s position, raised to be given as a wife to another political family, and ultimately given to man more than a decade her senior to be bred and produce heirs.

As a small child, Lucrezia and her older siblings were permitted to see their father’s renowned animal menagerie just once. The animals were not something the children were allowed to see, and they certainly didn’t attend any of the battles were their father pitted two animals against other for sport. But he’d acquired a tigress and his children convinced him they were old enough to go see her. Lucrezia is particularly touched by the wild animal held captive. The quote I started this review with is from when she’s pulled away from the tigress, after reaching through the bars to stroke the big cat’s fur. Lucrezia holds the memory of that tiger deep in her heart, refusing to talk about it; there’s no relationship in her life, save for Sophia, with the trust required to share such a moment. She, much like the reader, is fully aware that she’s the tigress.

Told in a non-linear fashion, the reader gets pieces of Lucrezia’s childhood prior to the wedding as well as the early days of the marriage interspersed with the moment when she realizes he’s going to kill her and as she struggles against the poison.

If you don’t want the ending spoiled, stop here.

O’Farrell has Lucrezia survive the attempted murder and escape with a painter’s apprentice.  After the poison didn’t work, the Duke entered her chambers to smother her. Only it’s not her in the bed, but her maid, a girl who looks like her save a wicked scar on her face. The Duke doesn’t realize it, and no one misses the maid.  Lucrezia is allowed to reinvent herself and be free.  But the maid eats at me. This young woman born to a different station had to share her own mother’s breast, time and affection with this child who seemingly has everything. Then, she is forced to leave all she knows to join Lucrezia in Ferrara, where her days are spent in service to the Duchess only to be sacrificed for Lucrezia without thought.  I just wasn’t keen on the body double plot point.

That aside, it’s beautiful prose that rewrites history for a young girl whose entire life was spent in a cage.

Read this book.

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