The Marriage Portrait

Strong willed teenage girls have been in literature since Shakespeare’s thirteen year old Juliet. Maggie O’Farrell uses Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” and the Macchiavellian intrigue of the sixteenth century to create a fascinating tale of the young Duchess of Ferrara.

Lucrezia may be an outcast in her family, not quite fitting in with her dark haired subserviant sisters and her entitled brothers, but she has had the courage to face down a tiger in her father’s wild menagerie. Her feisty demeanor serves her well as she is promised at age twelve to an older duke needing an heir.

O’Farrell imagines the real Italian Duchess’s life within all the confines of male domination in that century, and bestows the gift of art to the young girl, who creates animal miniatures as an alternative to the embroidery usually required of young women of the time. I could relate to Lucretia’s appreciation of the back side of the embroidery hoop, with all the knots and stitches needed to create the perfect picture on the other side. Her life is full of those knots, but O’Farrell gives her an escape with the help of an unlikely hero when all seems lost.

The story bounced back and forth in time to keep the suspense. The fictional duchess in the story seems destined to meet the same fate as her real forebearer as O’Farrell once again creates a compelling and totally enjoyable story.

I looked for the text of Browning’s poem and found it with a short explanation. O’Farrell cleverly includes the white donkey as well as other details from the poem in her story. Here is the poem and a short analysis.

https://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/browning/section3/

Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favorite authors. Here are my reviews of other books by Maggie O’Farell:

Hamnet –

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2021/06/16/hamnet-by-maggie-ofarrell/

The Hand That First Held Mine –

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2010/04/28/the-hand-that-first-held-mine-maggie-ofarrell/

Recommendations for Independent Bookstore Day

Although it’s been a while since I’ve walked into a bookstore, or any store, I still like to buy my ebooks from independent book stores. And, yes, I still read – not as much as before – but here are a few books I’ve bought and recommend:

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

For supporters of women in math and sciences, the obstacles the main character faces will ring true. Elizabeth Zott, after overcoming her miserable childhood, can’t seem to get a break as she tries to forge a career in chemistry. Sidelined by male colleagues at work and cheated out of a doctorate, she finds love with a rower and fellow scientist, only to lose him before their child is born. Her ongoing frustrations will be familiar to a generation of career women with children, but the character is also funny, ambitious, and determined. As she morphs into a modern day Julia Child, the laughs get better. A fun book with a message – as Elizabeth Egan noted in her review: ” She’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.”

One Italian Summer by Rebecca Searle

Ah, to be back climbing the steps of Portofino! Searle’s story will transport you to the beautiful Italian town, and you will instantly feel its charm. Having been there (for a cooking class), the descriptions of the food, the sea, the steps, the old women, brought me back and makes me want to go again. Katy Silver takes the trip to Italy she has planned with her mother. Her mother dies but with a heavy touch of suspending belief, you will meet her anyway as Katy discovers not only the beauty of Italy but also the unexpected joy of hanging out with her younger mother.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

I didn’t become a fan of St. John Mandel until I watched Station Eleven on Netflix. The Sea of Tranquility is another catastrophe story taking the reader through three worlds in three distinct time periods, The novel opens in 1912 when the son of an aristocratic British family is banished to Canada for some rash dinner-table remarks about colonial policy, and then vaults into the 23rd century for ‘the last book tour on Earth,” with an author named Olive Llewellyn, whose home is a colony on the moon, and whose novel about a worldwide pandemic has become a surprise blockbuster, and finally to Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a loner detective living on the moon in the 25th century in a colony called the Night City. Mandel connects the plots across time to examine what really matters. A good book for fans of science fiction but also If you just need to take yourself out of the present for a while.

French Braid by Anne Tyler

One of my favorite authors, Tyler uses an area I know well as her backdrop – Baltimore. With her quiet style, Tyler slowly weaves a story of family. Jennifer Haigh in her review for the New York Times, notes ““French Braid” is a novel about what is remembered, what we’re left with when all the choices have been made, the children raised, the dreams realized or abandoned. It is a moving meditation on the passage of time.” Read her review for more: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/20/books/review/french-braid-anne-tyler.html

The Club by Ellery Lloyd

Thrillers are always a great distraction to the world at hand, and if you are a fan of Ruth Ware, you will enjoy Lloyd’s ride. From Publisher’s Weekly: “The Home Group is a glamorous collection of celebrity members’ clubs dotted across the globe, where the rich and famous can party hard and then crash out in its five-star suites, far from the prying eyes of fans and the media. The most spectacular of all is Island Home–a closely-guarded, ultraluxurious resort, just off the English coast–and its three-day launch party is easily the most coveted A-list invite of the decade… as things get more sinister by the hour and the body count piles up, some of Island Home’s members will begin to wish they’d never made the guest list. Because at this club, if your name’s on the list, you’re not getting out.” A page turner.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

If you know Lucy Foley from “The Guest List,” you will enjoy her latest. Like a game of Clue,  this story keeps readers guessing whodunit until the book’s final pages.

And here are a few books I have preordered and looking forward to:

Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

The Lioness by Chris Bohjaloan

Love Marriage by Monica Ali

Quotes for Nasty Women and Catholic School Daze

th  Growing up in Catholic school with nuns as the arbiters of comportment left little room for deviant behavior that would go unpunished, unless you didn’t get caught.  The nuns discouraged “nasty” girls who where outspoken, yet ironically cited historical women who had achieved some fame as role models – Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others.  Linda Picone notes the modern version of compelling women in her collection referencing lines by women who dared to speak their minds in Quotes for Nasty Women.  

This short book has over three hundred pages of one liners from women novelists, politicians, actors, entrepreneurs, and other women of influence.  Just for fun, I picked out six quotes by an assortment of famous “nasty women”  who are among my favorites – both the women and the quotes.  Can you guess who said which?

The women who said the lines below are:    irreverent  New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, my favorite chef Julia Child, ubiquitous poet Emily Dickinson, the long-lasting influential Queen Victoria, American singer Joan Baez, and the witty American writer Dorothy Parker.  The answers are at the bottom of the post.

Quotes:

  1. “The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.”
  2. ” I dwell in possibility.”
  3. “I’ve never had a humble opinion.  If you’ve got an opinion, why be humble about it?”
  4. “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
  5. “Drama is very important in life: You have to come in with a bang.  You never want to go out with a whimper.”
  6. “The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for.”

Perhaps the strongest influences in my life were the nuns, and Thea Marshall brought back that memory in her short story “Catholic School Daze” in the book Tuesdays at Two, a compilation of short writings by a local writer’s group.  Little girls, thankfully, often grow up to be “nasty women.”

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Answers to the list of quotes:

  1. Queen Victoria
  2. Emily Dickinson
  3. Joan Baez
  4. Dorothy Parker
  5. Julia Child
  6. Maureen Dowd

 

 

The Child Finder and Elizabeth Smart

61JqRLhUD5L._AC_US218_Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder reminded me of  the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, a story I had heard on the news. I had avoided reading Smart’s account of her nine months in captivity in her book, “My Story,”  but this fictionalized tale of a young girl  stolen in the woods, abducted by a trapper who had once been a victim himself, revealed the horror and strength of missing children.  Fiction can be as true as fact.

In 2002, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was taken from her home in the middle of the night, kept chained and repeatedly raped. In Denfeld’s The Child Finder, a young girl, Madison, gets lost in a snowy wood in Oregon when she and her family are looking for the perfect Christmas tree to cut down.  A deaf trapper finds her, almost dead from the cold, and hides her in the dirt cellar of his cabin in the woods.  Madison survives by telling herself remembered folktales, and imagines she is now someone else, outside her own self and in the body of the Snow Girl, a fairytale she knows from before she was taken.  Denfeld masks the horror of the sexual abuse and the beatings with the girl’s stories;  her resilience and determination shine through the misery and offer hope for a rescue.

After years of fruitless searching, Madison’s parents hire Naomi, an acclaimed investigator and tracker with a reputation for finding lost children.  Naomi, who escaped her abductors as a child, struggles with her own demons – a haunting past she only remembers in nightmares.  As she pursues clues leading her to finding Madison, Naomi searches not only for the lost girl but also for her own lost identity.

Elizabeth Smart is the real life embodiment of a Naomi, transformed from victim to advocate.  After her rescue in 2003, she rejoined her family and continues to work to restore her life.  I look forward to meeting her soon at a book reading.

The Child Finder is not an easy read, but Denfeld uses her own experience as a Portland-based journalist and private investigator, as well as the adoptive mother of three foster children, to create a powerful and disquieting novel.

Suspend Belief and Enjoy “The House at the End of Hope Street” by Menna van Pragg

9781410461346_p0_v1_s192x300   As a fan of magical realism in literature, I thoroughly enjoyed an old book by an author new to me – The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Pragg.  The idea for the story was inspired by van Pragg’s yearning to establish a house for female artists to give them a year to fulfull their artistic ambitions.  This house, however, exists in its own dimension, only appearing to those who need it.

Van Pragg’s story revolves around three women who need motivation to follow their dreams – Alba, the youngest woman admitted to Cambridge who is betrayed by her family and her university advisor; Greer, who at thirty-nine has yet to achieve her goals of becoming an actress and a mother; and Carmen, the sexy singer with a murderous past.

Taking a cue from the Harry Potter books, van Pragg has portraits on the walls coming alive to speak and give advice.  These pictures, however, are of famous women,  from literary giants – Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Agatha Christie  – to esteemed scientists and suffragettes.  The stream of prominent women marching through the plot adds to the fun as each of the main characters faces her challenge and moves on to a better life.   Words stream by in banners, notes mysteriously drop from the chandeliers, colors surround characters in auras of emotion.  The House mysteriously and suddenly provides whatever its occupants need: a magical wardrobe (a nod to C.S. Lewis), shelves of books with titles constantly refreshed, a baby grand piano.

If you enjoy the tales of Erin Morgenstern, Sarah Addison Allen, and  Alice Hoffman, you might add Menna van Pragg to your list of happy diversions – magical realism with a British flavor.

When I discovered van Pragg had written a book with the irresistible title of Men, Money, and Chocolate (2009) – with recipes, I ordered it immediately as an ebook ($1.99).  The story is a little too heavy on schmaltz and not my style, but the recipes may be worth trying.    Van Pragg’s The Witches of Cambridge, (2016) looks like more fun  and is on my list, as is her latest from England to be published in the United States soon – The Lost Art of Letter Writing.  Unknown-2

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