Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Lady and the Unicorn and others by Tracy Chevalier

I just finished The Lady and the Unicorn, which was a well-designed novel about the famed French Lady and the Unicorn tapestry from the 16th Century. Fascinating as it is to glimpse inside the world of Europeans in that era, Chevalier likes to grip the reader with her characters, always full-bodied and fully realized, and taut plotlines that make you eat up pages like potato chips. This novel was no exception, as we meet the lustful painter Nicholas des Innocents (and I am sure the irony was completely intended) who enjoys relieving women of their innocence/virginity, and then leaving them to their own devices. He's a talented rogue, of course, and he creates the paintings for the tapestry and makes the faces on them those of the women he'd like to have bedded, but due to class restrictions, can't. Claude, the noblewoman he can't seduce, though he tries hard enough, becomes a sad figure by the end of the novel, yet we are again reminded of the plight of women through the centuries, when they were considered property of their fathers or husbands, and not allowed to make decisions for themselves, especially when it came to marriage. One of the tapestry workers, a blind girl, does take matters into her own hands by getting pregnant via Nicholas, so that she won't have to marry a stinking thug of a woad dyer who is too crude and pungent to bear.
Most of the women in the novel seem cruel, catty and often stupid, which is odd, as Chevalier would seem to highlight their imprisonment within a system that only values them as chattel.
I didn't like this novel as well as I did the lush "Girl With A Pearl Earring" which had some intense sexual tension and more emotional scenes that did the Lady and The Unicorn. I invested more in Griette, perhaps because she was such a sensitive soul in a world and an era that devalued such traits in women. Plus Vermeers wife was such a shrew, as was her mother, that it was difficult to see how Giette would survive at all, with such hawks. The Virgin Blue was another of Chevaliers books I've read, and it was more violent and harrowing than the other books I'd read, probably because it discussed the Reformation and how it was dealt with in France, in small towns and villages. There was bloodshed and death, and the usual theme of a woman caught by the mores of her time, and treated badly, with a child paying the price this time. I believe Chevalier is a historical feminist, highlighting the indignities and cruelty that women have faced over the centuries.
The next Chevalier book on my list is "Falling Angels" and I will be curious to see if she changes perspectives, as she did in Lady and the Unicorn, from one character to the next each chapter, or if she will keep to one narrator throughout the novel. I am also curious to see if the novel takes place in Europe or in America, as Chevaliers other novels all take place in Europe or the Netherlands.
Following the Chevalier books in my TBR pile are two books by Lynn Sharon Schwartz, "Ruined by Reading" and "The Writing on the Wall." I've read three of her books in the past, and enjoyed them, so I'm hoping for some great entertainment, as well as enlightenment.


Naim Peress said...

Dear DeAnn,

I also finished reading The Lady and The Unicorn. I think you made an interesting comment about how you invested more in Griette than in the characters in The Lady and The Unicorn. I think the ever-changing narrative voices in The Lady and The Unicorn made a similar investment impossible. However, I liked Chevalier's skill in making the voices believable and in moving the story forward. Perhaps you'd like to check out my comments at Take care.


DeAnn G. Rossetti said...

Thank you for reading my blog, Mr Peress, and I must say that, after visiting your extensive blog, mine looks a bit thin with the few posts I've managed to gather in a year.
I agree that it might have been difficult for Chevalier to make more of the characters in Lady and the Unicorn, but she's such a fine novelist, I think she could have pulled it off, given the desire to do so. But we'll never know now, will we?!
Thanks again for stopping by! I hope you come by again.