The Virgin Blue

On our trip to Ohio two weeks ago, Brandon and I listened to our first audio book: The Virgin Blue, a novel by Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring (which I have not read, nor seen the movie). Our well-read friend Rachel had recommended the title earlier this summer, so I was happy to find it in the audio section at the library (especially since it was the only possible option out of a slim selection of Steven Covey and Michael Crichton!). I found it harder to concentrate and analyse without the printed words in front of me, but the two female narrators offered a dramatic reading.

Three centuries after the Huguenots (French Calvinists) flee to Switzerland because of Catholic persecution, Isabelle Tournier’s American descendent Ella Turner returns to France when her husband takes a new job. Aimless at first, Ella finds purpose as she discovers her previously unknown ancestry.

The stories of both women are juxtaposed, the telling of the seventeenth-century Isabelle moving forwards toward a crises point, and the telling of the twentieth-century Ella moving backwards as she uncovers clues about her family history. Ella comes to realize the similarities she shares with those ancestors—an independent spirit, midwife training, and an almost physical connection to the French countryside. As she uncovers her violent background, she also learns to distance herself from certain aspects of her family’s culture and choices.

Despite the Reformation setting, there is little Christianity, but a strong supernatural element is present. Ella is trying to get pregnant and keeps having dreams in which the overwhelming impression is the lapis lazuli blue used by Renaissance painters for the Virgin Mary’s dress. She has always worn only natural fabrics, like the hemp the Tourniers grow and weave in their Swiss exile. Her hair turns red over the course of one day when she visits the region the Tourniers inhabited, and she finds the land calling to her.

Chevalier’s descriptive prose is never wasted. Her use of color is vivid, and details of the historical setting are accurate. We found it a compelling story, a bit slow at first in the initial chapters about the present-day character, but then moving at an increasing clip.

Anyone want to comment on this book, or compare it with her other novels?

18. August 2006 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 3 comments

Comments (3)

  1. I enjoyed listening to it with you. It was an interesting story line with some good characterization. The supernatural elements were interesting, but, like you, I really enjoyed the description.

    I miss having read it in book form though. I like to mark things up and there are no page numbers to refer to. But for a long ride home, it was a good book to listen to.

  2. I’ve never read this novel, or any of her novels, although I have seen the film adaptation of Girl with a Pearl Earring – although it starred some favorite actors (Scarlett Johannsen, Colin Firth), I found it lacking.
    Maybe I’ll pick this up at the library sometime.

  3. I have read all of Chevalier’s novels and find them compelling. The story is so different in each one, it is hard to compare but I appreciated this one in particular because of my own Swiss heritage. I think The Lady and the Unicorn may be my favourite in terms of sheer enjoyment. The tapestry itself gives the story a lot of cohesion.