Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review: The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

Having read a few other Tracy Chevalier books years ago, I always had this on the list. I picked it up randomly and did not regret giving it a read :)

The Virgin Blue tell the stories of two women: Ella Turner, an American woman of the present day living in France; and Isabelle du Moulin (called La Rousse), a French woman from the 15th century. Ella and Isabelle are distantly related, though Ella does not know at first. Ella moves to France with her husband for his job, leaving her at home alone with no job for the first time in her adult life. Ella starts having a frightening dream where she can only remember sounds and the color of "the virgin blue" (a bright turquoise blue reserved only for the Virgin Mary in historical paintings). She decides to find information about her French ancestors to fill her idle time and hopefully discover the meaning of her dream, which leads her to the public library and a friendship with the librarian, Jean Paul. Jean Paul becomes Ella's only friend in the small town of Lisle-sur-Tarns, leading to a bit of a flirtation as time goes on. Jean Paul helps Ella get to the right places and search the correct documents to find her Huguenot ancestors who apparently lived in the same area of the country she lives in at the time. As the story of Ella twists and turns and she finds out more about her family, the story of Isabelle develops. Isabelle married young and her in-laws never wanted her in the family. She is part of a Huguenot community, but she still has a deep love of the Virgin Mary. This inability to let one of the Catholic saints go causes Isabelle's family to suspect her of witchcraft and she is very badly treated from that point on. The stories of the two women alternate throughout the book, giving you more info about the 15th century Tourniers as Ella finds out more about them in the present time. Both stories culminate when Ella unearths an awful family secret from Isabelle's time in their still-standing ancient house in Switzerland.

I really enjoyed this book. The whole plot is just very inventive. I love the attention to historical accuracy Chevalier uses in all of her writing - you really do feel transported, which made me appreciate the amount of research that must have gone into a book like this. Another quirk that I really loved is the use of the French language in the book. Ella has problems communicating with her French neighbors, and most phrases are translated into English for the reader, but occasionally the phrases are just written in French with no further explanation. As a person who studied French most of my school life, I really appreciated this little detail. I feel like the French phrases were left untranslated to help the reader feel like the main character (confused and unable to understand everything), but as a French speaker these little tidbits really added a bit more to the story for me. I will mention that there is a bit of sex in this book - nothing tawdry or vividly detailed, but it is in there. When you first read these small sections, it just feels odd, but they are important to the story. I went from feeling they were an odd thing to include at the beginning to feeling that they really helped develop the lives of the characters even more. Overall, this was a very well written book and I very much enjoyed reading it. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

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