The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

The stripes of the tigress cross Lucrezia’s face like the bars of her cage shadow the tigress’ fur. Both the girl and the tigress are, in fact, caught and imprisoned in a cage made by others. The tigress meets her death when someone accidentally leaves the door between her cage, and the lions’, open. And I read on, hungrily, to see how Lucrezia will die. For from the very beginning of the novel it is known that her husband intends to kill her.

Lucrezia de Medici has become engaged to Alfonso Ferrara, a man to whom her sister was to be married before she died. When Lucrezia first meets him, he scrunches his face into the face of a mouse, and I think he is charming. This opinion holds with his engagement presents: a painting of a stone martin, as Lucrezia loves both painting and forest creatures, and a ruby encrusted belt.

But as the chapters alternate between a charming country home and a fortress to which he has taken her, I see that his words of adoration bear little meaning. For he is a man who will not be questioned. His authority is complete, and his wishes are fulfilled with the help of his loyal consigliere.

Not all of his wishes can be granted, though, for he has never fathered a child. This is quite significant to the heir he must produce if his line is to continue; it is threatened by his sister’s marriage. And, if there is anything Alfonso, Duke of Ferrera, cannot bear it is being threatened.

Maggie O’Farrell’s writing is as exquisite as it is in Hamnet. The scene becomes alive under her gentle touch, the emotions are felt as clearly in my own heart as they must be in the characters’. I read The Marriage Portrait with a thudding heart, alternated with wonder, and I think it is a marvel.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (One of my favorite books of the year.)

I never expected to read a book about the plague during a pandemic. I’ve done my best to keep away from dark thoughts, considering illness or death. But, when I began Hamnet, checked out as an ebook from our local library, I knew I needed a copy of my own…a copy through which I could meander at my own pace, relishing every well-chosen word, not worrying about the due date when the library would whisk it back unwillingly from me.

Maggie O’Farrell imagines Shakespeare’s life for us, while never revealing his name. She brings forth his wife, his parents, his home in Stratford more vividly than any play could reveal. Most importantly of all, she brings his son, Hamnet, to life. Even in his death, for we see the excruciating effect it has on his mother, his father, and their marriage.

In the opening pages he comes down the stairs, looking for someone, anyone, to help him. For his twin sister, Judith, is ill. They had been playing with the kittens in the yard, and then Judith had to lay down, and now she is not only pale, and clammy; there are two buboes showing under her skin. Bumps with an ominous threat of death.

Hamnet’s illness takes his mother by surprise, for she had been concocting remedies from her plants, her herbs, her tinctures, to help her daughter. And when Hamnet dies, she is full of self-blame for not seeing it, for not being able to prevent it.

I felt her recriminations towards herself as fiercely as my own. What mother doesn’t wish to take her child’s suffering upon herself, doesn’t long to pave a path for a long, fulfilling life for her child, doesn’t imagine all the thoughts about what could have been? For me, Maggie O’Farrell’s genius in this book was in brilliantly portraying Hamnet’s mother, even more so than his famous father.

It broke my heart, while making me feel not quite so alone in my own motherly sorrows.