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  • Writer's pictureAnna Karras

Book Review

The Marriage Portrait

Not to be confused with another Lucrezia of Borgia fame, this Lucrezia was born the third daughter of Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Florence in 1545. Famed nineteenth-century poet Robert Browning captured her life in his poem, “My Last Duchess.” O’Farrell takes the historical record, which is slim, and uses her writer’s talents to bring us a tale of riches, marriage to a handsome duke, and ultimate tragedy. Or is it?

O’Farrell, famous for her retelling of William Shakespeare’s tragic tale of his son in Hamnet, uses her well-honed research skills and lush language to flesh out the details of Lucrezia’s life in all its splendor. A true bird in a gilded cage, Lucrezia never stepped foot outside of the palazzo where she was born until the day she married Alfonso Il d’Este, Duke of Ferrara in 1558. She was just thirteen years old on her wedding day. Her older sister, Maria, was to have the favor of marrying the duke, but after her death from a fever, Lucrezia was left in line and available for the marriage negotiations by her father.

The author’s version of Lucrezia is a small girl with abundant red-gold hair and a dominant spirit. She presents us with a child who is sharply intelligent, gifted in drawing and painting, and unafraid of speaking her mind, even when it is unwarranted. Her intended, Alfonso, the newly minted Duke of Ferrara, is at turns kind and playful, and then domineering and demanding. Lucrezia, who has been raised to be meek, not question authority, and obey her parents and then husband, is surprised by her own stubbornness.

The novel weaves back and forth in time. We first meet Lucrezia at sixteen, having been escorted by her husband to an isolated hunting lodge without her serving women. We learn quickly she is certain he is going to attempt to murder her because she has not produced an heir, thus securing Alfonso’s bloodline. But O’Farrell weaves in chapters of Lucrezia as a child, her encounter with the tiger in her father’s menagerie, and the death of her sister Maria, plus her subsequent betrothal and marriage. Finally, the novel brings the two storylines together for the ultimate reckoning of Lucrezia’s fate.

Maggie O’Farrell uses all her gifts as a storyteller to bring Lucrezia to life. We are invited into the mind of a young woman who is unsure of her power, struggling between what she has been told is the right thing to do, and what her heart and mind speak. Lucrezia’s inner life is well-defined and rich as the glittery golden wedding gown she was laced into for her nuptials. This engrossing narrative will satisfy not only lovers of historical fiction but anyone who enjoys a story well-told. This story is like the deep red ruby the duke gives to Lucrezia as a wedding gift, lush and glittering, but as dangerous as the heart’s blood it resembles.


∞ Author Profile

Maggie O’Farrell was born and raised in Northern Ireland. She studied English Literature at Cambridge and worked for many years as a journalist. She has written nine novels for adults, a memoir, and several books for children. She is married to fellow writer William Sutcliffe. They live in Edinburgh with their three children.


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