Read With Us Selection
Fall 2022

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

“Brilliantly conceived. . . . There are court intrigues, whispered rumors, a clever subplot about the power of painting, what it reveals as well as what it hides . . . As a story, pure and simple, the novel succeeds wildly.”
— Marissa Moss, New York Journal of Books

Brief Synopsis

(from BookBrowse)

The author of HamnetNew York Times bestseller and National Book Award winner – brings the world of Renaissance Italy to jewel-bright life in this unforgettable portrait of the captivating young duchess Lucrezia de’ Medici as she makes her way in a troubled court.

Florence, the 1550s. Lucrezia, third daughter of the grand duke, is comfortable with her obscure place in the palazzo: free to wonder at its treasures, observe its clandestine workings, and devote herself to her own artistic pursuits. But when her older sister dies on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight: the duke is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father just as quick to accept on her behalf.

Having barely left girlhood behind, Lucrezia must now enter an unfamiliar court whose customs are opaque and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her new husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate he appeared to be before their wedding, the aesthete happiest in the company of artists and musicians, or the ruthless politician before whom even his formidable sisters seem to tremble?

As Lucrezia sits in constricting finery for a painting intended to preserve her image for centuries to come, one thing becomes worryingly clear. In the court’s eyes, she has one duty: to provide the heir who will shore up the future of the Ferranese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, the new duchess’s future hangs entirely in the balance.

Full of the beauty and emotion with which she illuminated the Shakespearean canvas of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell turns her talents to Renaissance Italy in an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman’s battle for her very survival.

Information About the Author

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972. Her novels include Hamnet (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Women’s Prize for Fiction), After You’d Gone, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, The Hand That First Held Mine (winner of the Costa Novel Award), and Instructions for a Heatwave. She has also written a memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. She lives in Edinburgh.

Maggie O’Farrell’s website can be found here.

Book Reviews

Brimming with intrigue and an ill-fated romance, this novel, based on aristocrat Lucrezia de’ Medici’s life, unfolds with thriller-level suspense.
— Hamilton Cain, Oprah Daily

From OprahDaily

From the New York Journal of Books

Author Interview

NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly interviews Maggie O’Farrell about The Marriage Portrait (8 minute listen)

Maggie O’Farrell on ‘The Marriage Portrait’: A Look at Scandal, History, and the Future (print interview from The Seattle Times)

Click in to watch this brief interview with author Maggie O’Farrell (between 7-8 minutes)

Book Quote

A male child would be greeted with rapture and relief, she knows, but then it would be moulded for one single destiny: a duke. And a female child would be required to do as she has done, to be uprooted from her family and her place of birth and bedded down in another, where she must learn to thrive and reproduce and speak little and do less and stay in her rooms and cut off her hair and avoid excitement and eschew stimulation and submit to whatever nightly caresses come her way.
— Maggie O’Farrell in The Marriage Portrait

Join Us For the Book Discussion on Zoom

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 11, 2023, 7:00 pm Eastern time

Questions will also be posted on our blogs: Highly Reasonable, Carole Knits, Dancing At the Edge

Did You Know???

Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait is inspired by Robert Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess. According to the poetry website Poem Analysis, Browning’s poem is a well-known monologue suggesting the speaker has killed his wife, and will soon do the same to his next wife.  Browning’s inspiration came from the Duke and Duchess Ferarra. The Duchess died under very suspicious circumstances, and Browning uses these suspicious circumstances as inspiration diving deeply into the mind of a powerful Duke of Ferarra who wishes to control his wife in every aspect of her life, including her feelings.

Here’s the poem:

My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning


That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!