The Virgin Blue, Tracy Chevalier

Plume, 2003

I know I’ve already mentioned how much I adore Chevalier’s books, so I’ll try to keep this one short!

Her first book, The Virgin Blue features two stories in parallel. One centres around a 16th-century French woman, Isabelle du Moulin, who clings to her Catholic faith even though all those around her, including those in her own family, have converted to Protestantism. Her husband is cruel and psychologically manipulative from the start, and her story is one heavily shrouded in superstition and suspicion. Then there is Ella Turner, a modern-day American woman who moves to Lisle-sur-Tarn, a small town in southernwestern France, with her husband. Ella struggles to find her identity in France, a big part of which involves digging into her family’s extensive history there. The result is an interesting connection between the two women who lived centuries apart.

That’s the bare bones of it, and I must say I enjoyed the general story. It was obvious to me, however, that Chevalier was still green at the time of her writing this book. There were several themes which she stuck to faithfully throughout the story – marriage, happiness, religion and spiritual tradition, dreams and superstition – these are all things both women battle throughout. But then there were things thatseemedshould be important, but weren’t – Ella’s interest in bringing her midwifery to France, for example, really doesn’t play out in the story, a detail the author seems to have forgotten about half way through. There were also several minor characters who didn’t have to be there. On top of it all, the ending was plain confusing. Tension started building near the end of the story, and it was paced so beautifully (a skill Chevalier has only improved upon since). But then it all seemed to end in two pages! Bam! – there’s the ending. Deal with it. It left me jilted, and I had to remind myself that the book in its entirety really was better than the feeling it ultimately left me with.

I stand by my claims that Chevalier is one of those rare, naturally-gifted writers. This may not have been her best attempt, but for a first novel it’s fine. Everyone needs a moment to find their footing, and this was that. It only gets better from here.

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