Wednesday, March 31, 2010

REVIEW: The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

Ella, an American woman, goes to France with her husband and tries to uncover her family's ancestry. She begins having dreams of a vivid blue and begins reciting a psalm in French, a language that she still is grasping to master. During her search for her roots, she meets Jean-Paul, the handsome local librarian with a sardonic sense of humor but a good heart and a willingness to help her find her roots and herself.
The book parallels the story of Isabelle du Moulin, who has married into the same family, but several hundred years earlier, around the time of the massacre of Saint Bartholomew and the fleeing of the Huguenots. Isabelle is very different from her husband's family, who sees her as a witch because of her midwifery skills and her vivid red hair. She struggles to keep her children safe from her husband's wrath, and a dark secret between her husband and his mother that she is not given access to.

Both Ella and Isabelle's stories interweave nicely, with quite a bit of overlap as Ella gets closer to discovering her family's past. It was fast-paced and a very engaging read from start to finish.

This is the second book I've read by this author (the first being The Lady and the Unicorn) and I really like her style. I will be reading more by her in the future.

A bit about the author:
Tracy Chevalier is a novelist born in the US but of Romande Swiss descent (with possible French Huguenot ancestry) on her father's side, and lives in London with her husband and son.

Chevalier was raised in Washington, D.C and graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Maryland. After receiving her B.A. in English from Oberlin College, she moved to England in 1984 where she worked several years as a reference book editor. Leaving her job in 1993, she began a year-long M.A in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

The Virgin Blue is her first novel, and it closely resembles Chevalier's own connection with and research into her own French/Swiss Huguenot roots. She, unlike Ella, did not find any documented roots in France, as many records just don't go back that far.

Other books to consider:
This book reminded me a little bit of Anya Seton's Green Darkness, which I heartily recommend. Other good books about different periods in French history are the Lady and the Unicorn by Chevalier and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind, although the characters are fictional, it does give a good picture of what life was like in Paris during the 18th century.

History lesson: A bit about Huguenots and the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day
The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France (or French Calvinists) from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Since the eighteenth century, Huguenots have been commonly designated "French Protestants", the title being suggested by their German co-religionists or "Calvinists". Protestants in France were inspired by the writings of John Calvin in the 1530s and the name Huguenots was already in use by the 1560s. By the end of the 17th century, roughly 200,000 Huguenots had been driven from France during a series of religious persecutions. They relocated primarily in England, Switzerland, Holland, the German Palatinate, and elsewhere in Northern Europe.

The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy in French) in 1572 was a targeted group of assassinations, followed by a wave of Roman Catholic mob violence, both directed against the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants), during the French Wars of Religion. Traditionally believed to have been instigated by Catherine de' Medici, the massacre took place six days after the wedding of the king's sister Margaret to the Protestant Henry III of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). This marriage was an occasion for which many of the most wealthy and prominent Huguenots had gathered in largely Catholic Paris.

The massacre began two days after the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots. Starting on 23 August 1572 (the eve of the feast of Bartholomew the Apostle) with murders on orders of the king of a group of Huguenot leaders including Coligny, the massacres spread throughout Paris. Lasting several weeks, the massacre extended to other urban centres and the countryside. Modern estimates for the number of dead vary widely between 5,000 and 30,000 in total.

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