The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve read quite a few books recently that I haven’t enjoyed – my fault, poor choice – but this was not one of them. I loved Hamnet and so was delighted to see that this was historical fiction too. Set in the Medici family, a time I know little about although I have seen all of the episodes of Medici the Magnificent on Netflix, the story is not an unknown one. A man needs an heir and Lucrezia, the third daughter of Cosimo de Medici is married at 13 to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara to provide one. And doesn’t!

The story is told in the present tense which has the effect of putting you there, right along with the characters but I have to admit, towards the end I did start to tire of it. This is possibly because you have to move along minute by minute with the character – Mantel said about Wolf Hall and the present tense:

The present tense forbids hindsight and propels us forward through this world, making it new just as it was, in every unfolding moment for the players


During the year that this book is set over, Alfonso has Lucrezia’s portrait painted and then when he has ‘tired’ of his wife who escapes he keeps the portrait in his office so that he can see it daily. How much easier a portrait must be than the real thing.

There are a lot of animals and beasts in this story from the menagarie that Cosimo de Medici keeps in the basement of his house to the description of Alfonso as he has sex with Lucrezia to the paintings on the walls, there are beasts everywhere providing an on-going sense of doom already started by Lucrezia knowing that her husband is going to kill her whic we are told in the first chapter. This knowledge infects the whole story so that when we get moments of tenderness from Alfonso, we also know that he doesn’t really mean it and it is all for show and this provides a certain menace tagging along beside us.

The ending did surprise me and I understand that O’Farrell veered away from facts here and created her own and I am not sure I was convinced by it.

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