Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

How do you follow Hamnet? Such an acclaimed book that touched a lot of people, Hamnet was never going to be an easy one to move on from.

I love Maggie O’Farrell’s work, she is one of my favourite writers. Her last three books, not just Hamnet, but I Am I Am I Am and This Be The Place all had a big emotional heft for me. So it was with great interest and excitement that I picked up the Marriage Portrait.

O’Farrell has stuck with historical fiction and this is a large book, nearly 450 pages so there’s a lot of detail to pick up. It’s one of the things she does well, the sights, smells, touch of a place, and in this case sixteenth century Italy.

The Marriage Portrait is the imagined biography of Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici d’Este, Duchess of Ferrara, and wife of the Duke of Ferrara who is widely considered to be the subject of Browning’s poem My Last Duchess.

In this novel, Lucrezia is the youngest daughter of Cosimo and his wife, widely known as La Fecunda for her child bearing ability. They live in Florence, rearing their children to rule or make good marriages to other rulers. The book opens with Lucrezia, married and a Duchess, travelling away from her home to a small country estate of her husbands. She is convinced he is going to kill her. The action of the book flits between what this modern Lucrezia does in her terrifying situation and the history of how she got to be here. Everything, from her conception and birth, to the death of her sister Maria who was supposed to be the Duke of Ferrara’s wife, and her experience of modern life.

It is rich in detail, as I mentioned before, and it is also a book to be savoured. Having said that, I read it fast and I also read it on an e reader which always spoils the enjoyment of reading for me. However, I did feel that perhaps The Marriage Portrait lacked the emotional heft of her recent books, and I didn’t think I was as moved by the story. When it comes down to it, perhaps I’m not judging it fairly: by anyone’s standards, it’s a good book.

I finished it in the evening, thought the above and then went to bed. But then I woke the next morning with scenes living on in my mind, questions forming about what really happened and an anguish about the fate of one of the characters. As I said, she’s so good at the detail work, it does paint a picture in your head. Fittingly, in this case. It will definitely benefit from a slow leisurely read, in physical reading form, and I recommend that you buy it in book form – the hardback looks gorgeous.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Headline on 30 August 2022.

My thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for an advance copy for review.

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