O’Farrell creeps into this gloomy realm of intrigue with an inkwell full of blood and a stiletto for her pen ... O’Farrell pulls out little threads of historical detail to weave this story of a precocious girl sensitive to the contradictions of her station ... O’Farrell’s manipulation of time and point of view keeps us vacillating between sympathy and skepticism ... You may know the history, and you may think you know what’s coming, but don’t be so sure. O’Farrell and Lucrezia, with her 'crystalline, righteous anger,' will always be one step ahead of you.
The book’s use of present tense rushes us along on the leading edge of her experience. O’Farrell has an uncanny ability to put us in Lucrezia’s very unusual shoes. One experiences, viscerally, Lucrezia’s exhaustion and terror when she is abandoned in a strange place a few hours after her marriage, her giddy excitement and expansive feeling of freedom in the early days of her marriage, her revulsion and fear as her husband’s 'fury and contempt' emerge, and her certainty that 'some vital part of her will not bend, will never yield' ... The final twist is so unexpected and so gorgeously executed that it brought this reader to tears. With it, O’Farrell demonstrates fiction’s ability to offer counter narratives to those of received history, to open before us imaginative abundance and a tremulous sense of possibility.
Subtlety is sacrificed for the kind of pulsing intensity most often found in thrillers ... Ms. O’Farrell intelligently connects Lucrezia’s trapped circumstances with the art that her husband, a notable patron and collector, commissions to immortalize her ... There is a blinding power to the heightened, almost fetishistic beauty of Renaissance art, this novel suggests as it portrays a world of far greater brutality and fierceness.
... this historical novel is verging on the steamy and operatic ... Hamnet wasn’t ridiculous in the way that The Marriage Portrait is ridiculous; at its best it was an affecting portrait of grief. But it too went in for lush atmospherics, for a lot of rustling leaves, for creating scenes that longed to be bowers of enchantment ... It, too, had few sharp perceptions, little wit and little humble sense of life as it is lived down near the ground. Reading each I pined instead — for the reason one goes to a good restaurant — something simple and unpretending ... Murder and unwanted sex are primal drivers of narrative. In this novel the characters are so one-dimensional and overwrought that the force of neither driver lands. The novelist begins to resemble a conjurer forcing cards.
... she has spun pure gold out of this tragic history ... builds a rich interior world while vividly re-creating an era, in this case the Italian Renaissance, a period overflowing with intrigue and pomp, rustling heavy fabrics and glowing frescoes, blood and lust and the desire for power ... That mouth, those fists, that ferocity! These are the gifts, O'Farrell suggests, that Lucrezia can use to survive this hard world. May they serve us well, too.
Allusion redirects our attention, coming to rest on Lucrezia, the overlooked consort. She herself has a way of thinking about this process of replacement, the subversion of one narrative by another. A keen and talented artist, she learns early in the novel that oil paintings often contain underpaintings, whole scenes painted and then painted over by artists dissatisfied with their work or wishing to conceal it. In O’Farrell’s version of the story, Browning’s is still present, but her treatment half-obscures it, bringing what was underneath to the surface ... Her painterly way of understanding the world shapes not only how she conceptualises it, but also how it looks to the reader – what’s foregrounded and what isn’t, where the light falls ... The Marriage Portrait is obsessed with its own repeating designs, pointing out auguries and patterns everywhere; it has its own logic, and requires a sacrifice.
Glittering, propulsive ... [A] tale of yearning and betrayal ... [An] alluring attention to textures—candlelit dinners, brocaded fabrics, the odors of sex—and, more critically, the theme of women’s lives circumscribed by paternalistic societies and merciless expectations ... O’Farrell’s technique beguiles, underscoring Lucrezia’s rising panic ... The Marriage Portrait, while fluently written and a page-turner, lacks the emotional staying power of Wolf Hall or Hamnet. Still, few writers play as confidently with the nuts and bolts of language.
Captivating ... A heart-pounding, atmospheric account of a powerless young woman’s cunning in the face of subjection and tyranny ... The Marriage Portrait is an emotionally intense read, lushly draped in atmospheric details ... O’Farrell writes with a dramatic fervor that can border on the overwrought – but it grows on you as it feeds a mounting sense of dread. She evokes the suffocating anxiety of Lucrezia’s wedding day ... Although the titular marriage portrait commissioned by Alfonso is a product of O’Farrell’s rich imagination, it is a radiant presence at the center of this book. It also underscores the idea that hidden depths lie beneath the surface of much that meets the eye, and that beauty and human connections can be found in unexpected places ... O’Farrell’s latest masterpiece presents a sumptuous portrait of a woman’s purposeful determination to break the bars of her gilded cage.
It’s unusual for a novelist to tell us how the story ends before it’s even begun, but it’s a clever choice ... O’Farrell appears to be embracing the historical form, for this is another gripping narrative with a passionate and resourceful character at its heart. Just as we knew that Hamnet could not survive his own story, so we are led to believe that Lucrezia cannot survive hers, and yet in both cases the reader is intrigued and eager to know how the characters will reach their end. It’s a measure of O’Farrell’s skill that we keep hoping against hope that the resolution will be different from the one that we have expected from the outset.
As historical fiction tropes go, the virginal naive yearning to provide an impassive husband a dynasty heir is fairly careworn by now. Yet O’Farrell has managed to breathe entirely new life into this plot with a 16th-century world that is brimming with detail and colour ... Exhaustively researched and helped along by a great imagination, O’Farrell’s Florence leaps from the page ... The subject of her latest historical fiction novel is a compelling choice, and one whose brief life lends itself well to tension and intrigue ... Her account of Lucrezia is a deeply humane one ... The Marriage Portrait is a divine union of well-drawn characters, the transportive power of period detail, and the sleight of hand of a writer at the top of her game.
Can a novelist be too interested in description? It feels like a churlish question — after all, one of the great joys of reading fiction is delighting in a writer’s particular way with imagery. Maggie O’Farrell is good at imagery ... Yet the question kept bugging me while reading The Marriage Portrait ... So headily perfumed is her prose it works on the reader almost like a drug ... Lucrezia remains the sum of her characteristics rather than springing forth messily alive. Perversely, she seems trapped beneath the weight of O’Farrell’s relentless, admittedly gorgeous descriptions ... The Marriage Portrait rarely provides fresh insight into Renaissance courtly life beyond reminding us that women are childbearing instruments of patriarchal power ... I’m glad I now know of Lucrezia, but The Marriage Portrait is a bloodless book, despite its efforts to bring a forgotten woman back to life.
O’Farrell has shuffled historical fact, portraiture and poetic fantasy together and used them as the basis for a piece of fiction in which a simple tale, of a girl forced too young into a dynastic marriage, is overlaid and embellished with elements from fairytale and myth ... Admirers of O’Farrell’s previous historical novel, Hamnet, may be nonplussed by this one. Where Hamnet’s emotional punch (read it and weep) was powered by its psychological and social realism, The Marriage Portrait is set in a world as fabulous as that of a millefleurs tapestry and inhabited by beings as flatly emblematic as embroidered ladies and their unicorns ... This is a book about a picture, and it is also pictorial. There is a lot going on in it under and around the surface narrative, in the way that there are other stories being enacted in the backgrounds of Renaissance paintings of biblical scenes ... O’Farrell’s prose, as fluent as ever, is more ornate than in earlier books. She alternates passages of plain prose with others rich in musical cadences and lavishly decorated with imagery and heightened vocabulary ... Finely written and vividly imagined, it is far from being simplistic, but there is an engaging simplicity to it that makes it feel not quite like a grown-up novel. Rather, it is a very good one to be read, as publishers used to say, by 'children of all ages'.
This is all such promising material – and yet it is not nearly as horribly gripping as it ought to be, partly as O’Farrell refuses to say in one image what she can do in three ... Too much hospitality is shown to Lucrezia’s dreams and there is an abundance of scenes where she wakes up confused about where she is. The symbolism of men as hunters, women as prey soon becomes overwrought ... None of this is helped by the unvaried texture of the narration ... It’s a shame as she is a perceptive writer whose sentences often have real poetic cadence ... If you can set all that aside, it’s worth sticking around for the rousing climax, which departs from historical record ... I didn’t believe it for a minute; it stirred me all the same. Still, I couldn’t help marvelling at how a novel that’s so richly descriptive could feel so limited in its range of expressiveness.
Nobody can manipulate and modulate time in the way Maggie O’Farrell does, and this has been a consistently overlooked feature of her oeuvre ... There are many switches and misconceptions, many carefully ambiguous words, many ekphrasic points, where a work of art described inside a work of art takes on great significance. But the ending – which I utterly, absolutely cannot reveal – is almost more Hitchcock than Shakespeare. I think that counts as praise ... There has been a trend for writers claiming to 'give a voice' to the past. O’Farrell is braver and gives us the voicelessness of the past ... The Renaissance suffuses this novel. It is carefully patterned with images: fire, water, honey, horses ... Maggie O’Farrell is a writer who I feel is never really given the adjectives she deserves: ingenious, inventive, humane, wry, truthful. This novel is better than her last novel: may the next be so too.
[Hamnet] is a fiendishly tough act to follow, but this irresistible story set in Renaissance Italy about the third daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici is every bit as evocative and spellbinding. O’Farrell, thank God, just seems to be getting better and better ... A hell of an opening paragraph, the sort that makes you want to scrap your plans for the rest of the day to find out what happens next, even if the historical note at the start strongly hints that the story is going only one way ... A nerve-shredding ride ... O’Farrell paints a picture of female defiance that feels appropriate for its time ... O’Farrell’s writing is so vivid it melts away the time and space between now and 16th-century Italy ... With The Marriage Portrait, then, O’Farrell hasn’t just produced another magnificently transporting page-turner. She has given us an exhilarating, devastating look at women’s captivity, creativity and ultimately, rebellion in a world run by some very cruel men.
O’Farrell has very little to go on so she invents her own story, giving Lucrezia an inner life and unusual artistic perception and execution ... O’Farrell and Hilary Mantel have used fiction as their own idiosyncratic James Webb telescope, enabling them to peer into the past and bring it fully illuminated back to us. Both are superior and unsentimental in their recreations of the past; they have an intellectual exactness about their intentions. They make their characters exceptional now and exceptional in their time, yet – mysteriously – perfectly of their time ... Sometimes O’Farrell’s detail, the excess of the background tapestry is too much, despite its constant poetic beauty ... We are all central in our own lives, so why shouldn’t historical figures be central in theirs, at least for a while. This is a thoughtful and chilly tale.
As the novel’s two timelines draw together, O’Farrell builds intense suspense. As always, her prose is beautiful, her characters finely drawn, her story wonderfully surprising ... Browning’s Alfonso might have closed a curtain over the portrait of his duchess to declare her his possession, but O’Farrell rips that curtain away and gives her a life.
This strange world and its characters are made fathomable through O’Farrell’s use of detail. Her descriptions are visceral, arresting and transportive. She understands that it isn’t the expected that makes historical fiction ‘believable’, but the unexpected.
... elegant and gripping ... O’Farrell’s resolution to the poem’s central mystery is apt and cleverly plotted, and the novel is tautly suspenseful as we watch Lucrezia, caged and endangered like the tigress, seek to escape its deadly fate. Like Maggie O’Farrell’s previous novel, Hamnet (2020), The Marriage Portrait is immersive, evocative, revisionist historical fiction, light of touch and rich in texture. Lovers of Browning’s poem will appreciate the little allusive gems she has scattered throughout.
O’Farrell’s language of nature, art, clothes, food, even weather, can swell into Pre-Raphaelite splendour. Yet it has poetry, not just finery ... This novel does its polished job as a bright-hued period page-turner with a striking rebel heroine. Its prose, though, truly shines in the skeins of eerie, heraldic imagery that trace Lucrezia’s inner life ... O’Farrell’s afterword alerts us that, although she mostly follows the historical record, the art of fiction claims a licence to invent. Her narrative enchantment will wrest suspense and surprise out of a death foretold. Even the storied past may hide some “secret underpaintings” of its own.
... sombre, haunting ... In O’Farrell’s hands historical detail comes alive. She deftly imagines Lucrezia’s childhood in the palazzo in Florence and her later marriage in Ferrara ... The novel is evocative and moving. The aspects of Browning’s poem which can seem far-fetched or comedic (the duchess riding around in her pre-death captivity on a white mule) are sensitively rendered. But, the narrative still falters. Some of the sex scenes are all but unreadable (‘the river god is enacting his nightly ritual, seeking that mysterious and necessary relief’), and the conclusion – mistaken identity and a similar looking maid – feels too neat and insubstantial ... O’Farrell has drawn back the curtain on this marriage portrait, but there’s an unmistakable sense that the painting hasn’t quite been finished.
O’Farrell masterfully makes each page incredibly vivid ... O’Farrell makes the story work through her incredibly rich descriptions ... O’Farrell brings us close to Lucrezia’s flinty intelligence, her inner strength. As a story, pure and simple, the novel succeeds wildly, placing us firmly into a specific time and place where Lucrezia’s drama plays out. The characters are subtle and intriguing, not simple caricatures ... The Lucrezia of the book may not accurately reflect the actual person, but she’s a compelling literary creation and the story that unfolds around her is no less powerful for being completely imagined by the author. In fact, in some ways, O’Farrell deserves even more credit for being able to conjure up this new Lucrezia so convincingly.
Murkiness gives O’Farrell plenty of room to look for skips in the historical record and build Hitchcockian suspense ... O’Farrell has taken a historical footnote – the death of a 16-year-old duchess – and added imaginative strokes that paint a different picture.
... the magnetic pull of learning the answers, and of being captivated once again by O’Farrell, is irresistible ... Any concern about a lack of dramatic tension here is unnecessary; the screws tighten inexorably toward the novel’s climax, which must remain undiscussed — at least until the book club meets. That’s unfortunate for a reviewer because there is much to dissect. The final pages will almost certainly leave readers with strong, conflicted feelings about O’Farrell’s ending, if not the entire novel. It’s equally likely readers will embrace the book as hurl it against a wall.
... a vivid depiction of the harsh manners and rigid expectations for women within ducal courts in 16th-century Italy ... O’Farrell is a marvelous stylist, and The Marriage Portrait is full of the same kinds of intense details that made Hamnet come alive. Her characters are captivating and believable, and the landscape of Renaissance Italy is a veritable gift to the senses, so powerfully does O’Farrell evoke the sights, sounds and smells of forest, castle and barnyard ... will please readers who relish good historical fiction as well as anyone looking to the past to better understand the present.
... immersive and poignant ... captures a time and place in such textured and atmospheric detail that it is easy to get lost in its world. This novel, however, manages to juggle this cinematic portrayal of a period alongside a startlingly intimate portrait of a woman whose rebellious spirit must be confined to the wild images she hides in her landscape paintings ... Despite being, at its heart, a keenly insightful character study, O'Farrell's novel also succeeds as literary suspense. The book's creeping escalation of tension and its labyrinthine castle hallways, which must be traversed slowly in layers of dense fabric, produce a sense of almost gothic horror. Rather than staying within the predictable arc of such a tale, however, O'Farrell's careful plotting, intricate world-building and dedication to capturing what is both beautiful and horrifying about such a world ensures a perspective that, like her heroine, refuses to be confined by traditional narratives or societal expectations ... O'Farrell continues to be invested in exploring the under-told and often paradoxical existences of those just out of the center frame in history.
Lush, provocative ... O’Farrell excels at sumptuous set pieces ... By imagining an alternative fate for Lucrezia that deviates from the historical record, the author crafts a captivating portrait of a woman attempting to free herself from a golden cage. Fans of the accomplished Hamnet won’t be disappointed by this formidable outing.
The rollbacks to earlier periods spark some impatience as Lucrezia’s 1561 dilemma becomes more pressing, but O’Farrell’s vivid portrait of a turbulent age and a vibrant heroine mostly compensate for an undue lengthening of suspense as Lucrezia struggles to defy her fate ... A compelling portrait of a young woman out of step with her times.