“The Virgin Blue” by Tracy Chevalier – review

I read “Remarkable Creatures” by the same author a few years ago and absolutely loved it, yet somehow had never got round to reading any of her other books until now.  “The Virgin Blue” is one of those novels that have a historical and a modern day storyline running side by side, but it was – as it usually is for me – the historical element that drew me to it.  This strand of the novel tells the story of Isabelle du Moulin, a young woman living in rural France in the last decades of the sixteenth century.  Times are changing: Calvinist beliefs are starting to spread through France and other parts of Europe, overturning the Catholicism that has until now been the foundation of mainstream society.  When the new religion, “The Truth”, arrives in her village, Isabelle finds herself regarded with suspicion – nicknamed La Rousse as a child because of her likeness to the painting of the Virgin Mary above the door of the parish church, her association with the Madonna suddenly becomes a potentially dangerous one.  Calvinist doctrine sees the Catholic devotion to Mary as an impediment to the worship of God, and Isabelle is now a tainted woman in the midst of the reformist frenzy surrounding her.  The Catholic forces, however, are not far away, and Isabelle eventually flees with her husband’s family, followers of the new religion themselves, to a place they hope will bring them shelter from persecution at the hands of those who would enforce the old religious ways.  Unfortunately for Isabelle, her troubles are only just beginning.

In the present day, American Ella has just moved to France with her husband Rick, a move that was meant to see them attaining the idyllic French country lifestyle that so many crave.  However, Ella soon starts to be plagued by a mysterious recurring nightmare that haunts her waking hours as well as her sleep.  She is at a loss to interpret its meaning, and is only able to articulate the overwhelming sense of oppression and anxiety with which it leaves her.  Most inexplicable of all is the vivid colour she sees again and again: a rich, multi-layered shade of blue.  Life in the small French town is not quite what she hoped for either, with a community suspicious of outsiders and days that seem increasingly lonely as her husband immerses himself in a new job.  To distract herself from her unhappiness, Ella starts to research her family history, spurred on by the knowledge that she has cousins in nearby Switzerland, and before long she finds herself engrossed not only in her family’s turbulent past but also Jean-Paul, the town librarian.

Out of the two stories, I have to admit I preferred the historical one, but that’s personal taste rather than any shortcoming of storytelling.  I’ve always found Europe’s religious reformation to be a fascinating time in history, and I felt the author really captured a sense of what an immense upheaval the emergence of Calvinism would have been to a society and individuals.  On the one hand, the saying that there’s no-one as zealot as a convert holds true; and yet there are elements of the old religion that are still so ingrained in people’s hearts and minds that it’s almost impossible for them to be erased completely.  Isabelle may be living as the dutiful wife with her fiercely pro-reform in-laws, but secretly she finds comfort in the old, familiar rituals and in particular the reassuring image of the Virgin that she finds in her place of exile in the local church, but dares not be caught looking at.  Hers is an incredibly sad story, persecuted as she is from all sides – though it must be said the distant threat of Catholic forces bearing down on her pales in comparison to the abuse of her thuggish husband – and at times I found her tale quite difficult to read.  In the twenty-first century Ella has her own troubles to be sure, but sad though some of them are I never feared for her happy ending the way I feared for Isabelle’s.  What I did really enjoy was the subtle sense of mysticism linking the past and present.  It was never overblown, but there’s something enticing and magical about the idea that we are all somehow connected across the centuries to those who have gone before us.  It’s not giving too much away to say that many of Ella’s unexplained feelings and visions are a reflection of those of the woman who walked in her footsteps four hundred years before; I found a warming sense of reassurance that whatever befell Isabelle, her life, her loves and her tragedies would not become insignificant casualties of the passage of time, but would live on in the hopes and dreams of another woman many centuries later.

I already have another Tracy Chevalier book on my shelf waiting to go; if the two I’ve now read are anything to go by it will be a very enjoyable read.  If you’re a fan of dual timeline novels – or any novel with an historical element come to that – do try “The Virgin Blue”.  I can’t promise there won’t be some heartbreak but I will guarantee a good read.


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