Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: The Virgin Blue

The Virgin Blue
By Tracy Chevalier
Publication date: 2003

My review:

In 16th century France, Isabelle du Moulin, nicknamed La Rousse for her miraculously red hair, makes the mistake of getting involved with Etienne Tournier. After they marry, she suffers under the thumb of Etienne's family and their superstitions. As Etienne becomes abusive, Isabelle fears for her safety and that of her daughter Marie, whose hair is also starting to turn red like the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile in the present, Ella Turner and her husband Rick have just moved to France. Ella feels at odds because she can't work yet-she is a midwife but has to jump through hoops to be able to practice in France. In the meantime she is taking classes to brush up on her French and she also decides to research her family's history. Ella has begun to have strange recurring dreams involving the color blue and at times has woken up speaking French when she barely knows the language. She believes that finding out about her ancestors will give her peace and help her to feel like she belongs in France. Her quest for information about her family leads her to Jean-Paul, a handsome librarian who constantly challenges Ella. As they work together, she begins to have forbidden feelings for him even as her own marriage is on the rocks. The Virgin Blue tells the story of two women separated by centuries whose lives have surprising similarities.

The main characters, Ella and Isabelle are different yet strong in their own way. Isabelle makes a poor decision where Etienne is concerned and she allows him to bully her but she is protective of her children and she stands up for herself at times. Ella is as a modern character more feisty and upfront about her opinions. I felt that I had a greater understanding of Ella because more time was devoted to her story. I was able to relate more to Ella and her experiences. I liked the descriptions of Ella's life in France as she tries to make friends and deal with the nosy townspeople. I particularly enjoyed reading about Ella’s research and the mystery aspect of the story.

The themes of birth, motherhood, belonging, and belief are woven throughout the novel. Ella is a midwife and Isabelle’s mother was also a midwife. Isabelle was even planning to follow in her mother’s footsteps until Etienne forbade her. Ella and her husband also decide to start a family while in France and there are several pregnant characters introduced. The Virgin Mary is an important figure in the story as the novel starts with the statue of the Virgin Mary being placed in the village square. On this momentous occasion, as the sun hit the statue, it also caused Isabelle’s hair to turn red. Shortly after this, Calvinism comes to Isabelle’s village and the statue of the Virgin Mary is later torn down. From that day forward although Isabelle is known as La Rousse, she covers her hair and the red color is considered a curse. Catholicism, Calvinism, and pagan superstition all influence Isabelle’s life in various ways. For Ella, her struggle with belief is more about allowing herself to believe in her intuition and in the dreams/visions she experiences. I also thought it was interesting that both Ella and Isabelle sought to belong.

While I liked The Virgin Blue, it did have some flaws. Usually if I am reading a book that switches back and forth between modern day and historical time periods I enjoy the historical segments more. In this case I actually preferred reading about Ella's life in modern day France. The historical sections were interesting enough but I didn’t care for some of the mystical elements in the novel. At times the coincidences were just too much. With Isabelle’s story I had a harder time connecting with her because I thought we saw just a small part of her life and then the narrative switched back to Ella. Still, even with the flaws I found the book interesting enough to keep going and I liked the main characters. Overall I thought this was an entertaining if slightly uneven novel.

Readalikes: The Devlin Diary by Christi Phillips, Susan Vreeland, Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, Chateau of Echoes by Siri Mitchell

1 comment:

  1. Even before I was done reading your review I was thinking of how this book sounds like Sarah's Key - and then you included it as a readalike! I adored Sarah's Key, so I'll definitely check this one out if I get the chance. Fantastic review!


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