16 April 2007

Book Review: The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

The Lady and the Unicorn The socially-ambitious, late-fifteenth-century nobleman Jean le Viste is keen to emphasis his status as one close to the king. To this end, he decides to commission a series of tapestries portraying a battle at which he wasn’t present. The artist chosen to design them is Nicolas des Innocents, who has little experience with tapestry but is happy to accept the commission if it means chances to see Jean’s daughter Claude. Nicolas has seduced a string of women with a tale of the unicorn (specifically, its magical horn) and intends that she should be next. But Claude is closely watched by her mother Genevieve, who likes neither Nicolas nor her husband’s plan for the tapestries. She would much rather a sequence telling of the lady’s seduction of the unicorn. And so unicorns it is.

Far to the north in Bruges, weaver Georges la Chappelle accepts the task of weaving six large tapestries for a nobleman on the rise. He is horrified when the artist arrives at his workshop along with the designs, for Nicolas des Innocents knows nothing about tapestry and is possessive of his work. It is hard to make him see that changes have to be made. What Nicolas does see is Georges’s daughter Alienor, who in turn sees a way out of an arranged marriage to a foul-smelling woad dyer. And when le Viste’s schedule changes, the workshop is strained to breaking point.

The tapestries in this book are real, making the book reminiscent of Girl With a Pearl Earring; only with more room for literary license as almost nothing is known about them except the family that originally owned them. Everything else - the where, the when, the precisely who - is pure conjecture. There was plenty of scope to invent a compelling tale, but it was the tapestries rather than the characters that were the star of the show. I now know rather more than I did about fifteenth-century tapestry-making, from the first drawings to the cutting of the final thread, even the art form’s particular design requirements and weaving guild politics. (But don’t worry, there’s no Historian-style history lessons.) The main features of the six panels were displayed in the front and back of the book and I often turned to them to look at some aspect of the design that had just been mentioned. One of the highlights was the way in which features if the tapestries were worked into and explained in the story.

But compared to the tapestries, most of the characters fell a little flat. Alienor was interesting, as was her mother (and would-be weaver) Christine. The others ... not so much. Some were even puzzling: did self mutilation in the style of a modern-day cutter exist among fifteenth-century teenagers? And how on earth did Nicolas’s unicorn spiel work? Surely the various objects of his lust couldn’t have been that naïve.

Rating: B-


tanabata said...

I agree with you- when I read it a few years ago I also thought it was just an average read and that the characters fell flat. But I read it just before going to Paris where I got to see the actual tapestries. They were completely mesmerizing! And I have to admit actually moreso because I sat and contemplated them with her story and characters still fresh in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. I keep picking this book up and nearly buying it and then putting it back... I did see the tapestries in Paris when we went before Christmas and they were stunning, so much bigger than I was expecting. Maybe the book will bring them to life more for me. Hmm some more thought is in order!

Amat Libris said...

I'm turning slightly green with envy here! Should I ever visit Paris the tapestries will be on the must-see list.

Anonymous said...

The story of the tapestries was interesting but I hated all of the characters in this book. I think I may have read this one after Girl with a Pearl Earring and I was so disappointed that I haven't picked up another of Chevalier's books. She has a new one out though and I think I'm over this so I'll have to look for it :)

Amat Libris said...

I read a review of that in the paper on Saturday and thought it sounded worth checking out. I hope it's more like Girl With a Pearl Earring than this!

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776