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Review: The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf, 2022. 333 pp. $28

It’s 1561, and Lucrezia, the not-quite-sixteen-year-old duchess of Ferrara, refuses to believe that Alfonso, her husband of one year, means to kill her. She can see no cause for offense, and at certain moments, he seems tender and thoughtful, maybe even loving. Yet when Lucrezia, daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici and no stranger to the forms and unwritten rules of cutthroat court life, reconsiders how Alfonso has brought her to a deserted castle, she has to wonder.

A remarkable premise, this, and at times The Marriage Portrait reads like a thriller, written in O’Farrell’s trademark sumptuous prose. But this novel isn’t merely another tale of a child at risk, though Lucrezia is that; innocent, empathic by nature, a sensitive soul who loves animals, she’s ill suited to her time and station in life. Her father and husband care only to extend and preserve their power, which means that daughters exist to be sold in marriage for political advantage.

Like Hamnet, therefore, O’Farrell’s triumphant novel about the Shakespeare household, The Marriage Portrait deals with matrimony. But where Agnes Shakespeare worried about her husband’s constancy and their children’s health and struggled against the sexual double standard, here the stakes consider survival when a husband, not the plague, is the enemy. Lucrezia’s expendable, and as the novel opens, she’s coming to realize that.

Alessandro Allori’s portrait of Lucrezia de’ Medici, 1560 (courtesy North Carolina Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The back story, which narrates her upbringing and bewildering early months of marriage, imagines how a young girl must have felt to be torn from home and thrust into the bed of a man almost twice her age. But Lucrezia’s much more than a victim. She has enough willfulness to want to ask why things must be how they are, even if she holds her tongue, and she likes to test the rules.

In that vein, there’s a terrific childhood scene in which she contrives to be alone with a tigress her father has imprisoned in his basement menagerie:

She saw how the animal lifted her lustrous muzzle, nosing the air, sifting it for all it could tell her. Lucrezia could feel the sadness, the loneliness, emanating from her, the shock at being torn from her home, the horror of the weeks and weeks at sea. She could feel the sting of the lashes the beast had received, the bitter longing for the vaporous and humid canopy of jungle and the enticing green tunnels through its undergrowth that she alone commanded, the searing pain in her heart at the bars that now enclosed her.

Not only is Lucrezia like the tigress; her father, the kind of man who’d imprison the beast for his own amusement, treats his daughter similarly. That relationship foreshadows the Ferrara court, where all eyes focus on her, as though she too were a beast on display, yet no one really sees her. She craves understanding and friendship but, to her shock, can trust nobody, not even—maybe especially—her sisters-in-law. If she takes small pleasures, such as opening a window to watch a storm, her husband scolds her, often dragging her around. So he’s not just a tyrant; his violence makes him a sociopath.

Such extreme character disorders can, in the wrong authorial hands, function in an exaggerated way to create tension. But here, Alfonso’s not just an erratic personality. The narrative shows his motives, fears, and overweening pride—from his young bride’s perspective, to be sure—but nevertheless depicts him so that the reader understands what drives him, even if Lucrezia doesn’t always.

I usually dislike cliff-hanger openings, a prologue by another name, followed by lengthy back story. But again, O’Farrell goes one better, using that device to achieve several goals. First, she introduces the mystery Lucrezia’s trying to decipher, whether Alfonso truly means to do away with her—and her confusion, not just the threat, propels the narrative. Secondly, I believe that novels should start where the protagonist realizes that life will never be the same—and in Lucrezia’s case, that life appears to be short.

Moreover, O’Farrell doesn’t abuse the reader’s patience. She returns frequently to the scenes of 1561 and Lucrezia’s duress, while the back story advances rapidly, and I never feel manipulated through the withholding of secrets. Quite the contrary; a historical note before the first chapter establishes the premise, apparently inspired by a Robert Browning poem I’ve always liked, “My Last Duchess,” quoted there. That forthrightness marks the story throughout.

The resolution is predictable, based on a couple one-sentence clues dropped into the text. That bothered me, a little, though how the story gets there is anything but ordained.

Hamnet is a deeper novel, I think, offering at once a view of Elizabethan daily life, exploration of mortality and its impact on the living, and the themes of marriage referred to earlier. But The Marriage Portrait, though it has a narrower focus, is still a superb novel, and I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.