Mary Cawley reviews The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier
This is not a new book, but rediscovering it with delight after a few years I wanted to share it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Tracy Chevalier is probably best known for Girl with a Pearl Earring, brought to the big screen by Peter Webber and starring Colin Firth and Scarlet Johansson. All Chevalier’s very different novels have a wonderful sense of historical place, but my favourite remains the less hyped The Virgin Blue, her debut novel.
The book tells the parallel stories of Isabelle du Moulin, a young French woman in the 16th century married into the cold and hypocritical Tournier family, and her descendant 400 years later, the American Ella Turner, who is trying to adapt to a strange new life in France.
The two women are inextricably bound by their ancestral legacy, and as the chapters alternate between their lives, potent symbols of their shared blood line emerge. Bored and lonely in a closed French village, Ella feels compelled to investigate her Tournier/Turner ancestry, with horrific consequences as the dark secrets of Isabelle’s 16th century Huguenot family start to unravel.
Of the two, Isabelle is the more compelling character, and her eventual fate is the more shocking for this. Ella can be irritatingly self-absorbed, but her story with its cast of well observed and endearing secondary characters more than compensates. The denouement completes the circle of the two women’s lives brilliantly, and very movingly.
Fittingly I feel, the last words of The Virgin Blue are about Isabelle’s second son Jacob, the redemptive hope for a flawed and truly wicked family line, are: “Jacob reaches the crossroads and finds his mother on her knees, bathed in blue. She does not see him and he watches her for a moment, the blue reflected in his eyes. Then he looks around and takes the road leading west.”