Under and Over Painting.

Book Review for “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell.

Summary: In the winter of 1561, Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, is taken on an unexpected visit to a country villa by her husband, Alfonso. As they sit down to dinner in the icy hall it occurs to Lucrezia that Alfonso has a sinister purpose in bringing her here: he intends to kill her. Lucrezia is sixteen years old and has led a sheltered life, locked away inside Florence’s grandest palazzo, guarded by her father’s soldiers and her mother’s ladies-in-waiting. Here in this remote villa, however, she is entirely at the mercy of her increasingly erratic husband. What is Lucrezia to do with this sudden knowledge? What chance does she have against Alfonso, the ruler of a province, and a trained soldier? How can she ensure her survival?”

Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, Italy – Florence; Fortezza near Bondeno; Castello, Ferrara; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, Art, Psychological.

Marriage Portrait GR

Oh, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Why did you have to make it so hard for me to write this review? I mean, you really pulled out all the stops here with this one, didn’t you. Okay, yeah… we should have seen this coming with your Hamnet, but still… this is one of those OMG moments when reviewers like me are basically at a total loss for words. And to do it in my favorite genre – biographical, historical fiction about a woman we know practically nothing about. Well… Not fair, Ms. O’Farrell… foul play, I say!

Ah, but don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you this is a Nobel Prize worthy novel, and to be honest, I actually think I enjoyed Hamnet a touch more than this one, in a few ways. But the one place where this is equals, if not exceeds Hamnet is in the writing. This is the main reason writing this review is so hard. You see, I’m trying to find the right adjectives to tell you about the incredible writing in this book. I could use luscious, and that would be accurate, but I’m not sure that’s enough. Certainly, this is one of the most poetic of all of O’Farrell’s books so far, and that means we could also call her prose lyrical. As usual, O’Farrell uses her words with such artistry that I could easily picture the action in my mind’s eye. However, much like with Hamnet, there were passages where scenes were so vivid and yet sparingly described, that I could fill in so many blanks, that I could almost taste, smell, and almost feel things as the characters moved through the clearly set-up spaces.

Try to sum all that up in one, succinct, quote-worthy byte, why don’t you? Well, I can’t; but what I can do is add a touch more, such as the rich, atmosphere that O’Farrell gives us here. We already know that what we’ll have is a luxurious version of mid-16th century life, which also has some pretty gory bits to it as well. And that is exactly as it should be, because if you know anything about that era, its that there were some pretty disgusting things going on at the time, none of which seemed to be anything but natural for those who experienced them. Today, obviously, we are appalled by what was considered just part of life back then. I mean, people could literally get away with murder and the consequences of those who carried out these atrocities – or ordered such crimes to be carried out, if they had power, were most likely little to none. We can only hope that society has evolved enough today that this is no longer the case, although the law does seem to still be administered unevenly, much to our chagrin.

I mentioned above that I’m not sure if I liked this book more than Hamnet. Truthfully, if I’m to use my usual guidelines regarding making me laugh and/or making me cry, I do have to say that despite the incredible writing here, O’Farrell didn’t succeed in making me totally fall in love with Lucrezia enough to shed a tear for her. Yes, I cared about what happened to her, and I wasn’t prepared for how O’Farrell decided to end the novel (sorry, no spoilers). Still, there was a bit of a loss of connection I had with her, that distanced me from her just the slightest. Now, I’m still going to very warmly recommend this book, because it is one of the most beautifully, and artistically written novels I’ve read since… well, since her Hamnet. However, I cannot, in good conscience, give this an unequivocal 5/5 stars, and therefore, I’m going to give it 4.75 stars, which (as usual) still means I’ll use the five-star graphic. And no, this has not reduced my admiration of O’Farrell at all. I’ll be first in line for her next novel, I can promise you that!


Marriage PortraitTinder Press released “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell on August 30, 2022. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Blackwell’s, Foyles, The Book Depository (UK and US), Waterstones, WHSmith, Kobo (eBook and Audiobook), eBooks.com, Books-a-Million, Better World Books, iTunes (iBook and iAudiobook), Bookshop.com, UK.Bookshop, or an Indiebound store near you. 

This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: New Release Challenge (#47), Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (#39).

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16 thoughts on “Under and Over Painting.

  1. I’m on p. 212 of this book and enjoying it. I’m intrigued because of the narrative structure–I know something happened to make the Duke try to kill the Duchess, but I don’t know why yet, although I suspect it’s the issue of progeny and whether she can deliver within his no doubt narrow time frame.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m part way through my review of this. Agree with you about the evocation of the period, I really did feel I was in renaissance Italy. She’s brilliant at the set pieces too (the episode with the tigress was outstanding). I did find her prose rather too lush often times and would have preferred it pared down just a little

    Liked by 1 person

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