Following the critically acclaimed Hamnet (2020), O'Farrell creates another mesmerizing portrait of a Renaissance-era woman whose life is shrouded in mystery. "My Last Duchess," Robert Browning's poem about Lucrezia de' Medici (1545--61), gave voice to the longstanding rumors that its subject was murdered by her husband, Alfonso, duke of Ferrara. Was she, and if so, why? A member of Florence's large ruling family, Lucrezia, a restless dreamer who adores animals and creating art, is devastated to learn, at age 12, about plans for her to wed her late sister's fiancé. While Alfonso appears charming, she later witnesses his cruel streak. O'Farrell shines at instilling elegantly described scenes with human feeling, such as Lucrezia's wedding preparations and her sense of inner strength while viewing the sunrise transform the sky at Alfonso's country villa. The author proves equally skilled at evoking suspense. This she accomplishes by alternating between Lucrezia's earlier life and the time when Alfonso brings Lucrezia, his 16-year-old bride, to an isolated stone fortress--perhaps to kill her. The potential motive won't surprise anyone familiar with noblewomen's dynastic roles. Historical-fiction readers will love the cultural details, while Lucrezia's plight speaks to modern themes of gaslighting and women's agency. The leitmotif of "underpainting," hiding truths beneath the surface, echoes throughout this poetically written, multilayered novel.
A teenage Renaissance bride discovers that her husband of scarcely a year intends to murder her. Following up her National Book Critics Circle Award winner Hamnet (2020), inspired by the life of Shakespeare's wife, O'Farrell turns to another woman seen by history only in glimpses. Little is known about Lucrezia de'Medici, married at 15 to the Duke of Ferrara, besides her suspicious death; rumors that she was poisoned prompted Robert Browning's famous poem "My Last Duchess." In contrast to Browning's ever smiling victim, O'Farrell imagines a rebellious spirit less interested in matrimony than in painting the natural world around her. The author develops tension with a split time frame, opening in 1561 in "a wild and lonely place" to which 16-year-old Lucrezia is quite sure Alfonso has brought her to be killed, then circling back to depict her childhood in Florence, including a life-changing encounter with a tiger in her father's private menagerie. From there the two narratives move forward in tandem: We see Lucrezia growing up to be sacrificed to political maneuvering that mandates her marriage to the suave Alfonso and growing aware in Ferrara that her outwardly courteous and kind husband is brutally determined to cement his shaky hold on the dukedom and ferociously intent on making sure she produces an heir. Her only solace comes in painting wild scenes of imaginary creatures, then covering them up with conventional still lifes approved by Alfonso as proper diversions for his duchess. When she meets Jacopo, an apprentice to the painter commissioned to create her portrait, she finds a soul mate who perhaps offers a way out of her imprisoning marriage. Several grim scenes make clear the mortal consequences of any attempt to escape Alfonso's clutches: Will Lucrezia take the risk? The rollbacks to earlier periods spark some impatience as Lucrezia's 1561 dilemma becomes more pressing, but O'Farrell's vivid portrait of a turbulent age and a vibrant heroine mostly compensate for an undue lengthening of suspense as Lucrezia struggles to defy her fate. A compelling portrait of a young woman out of step with her times. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
This lush, provocative historical from National Book Critics Circle Award winner O'Farrell (Hamnet) follows a young woman who is married off at 15 amid the complex world of 16th-century Italian city-states. O'Farrell bases her heroine, Lucrezia de' Medici, on a real-life figure depicted in Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess," who was murdered by her husband. When the reader first meets Lucrezia, she's been married for not quite a year and faces mortal danger in what O'Farrell describes as a "wild and lonely place." The narrative moves back and forth from the nearly deserted fortress where Lucrezia plays a game of cat and mouse with the duke of Ferrara, the husband who might be attempting to kill her, and the events that have brought her here. As a child of a noble family in Florence, she was untamable and passionate about making art. Now, the duke grows increasingly impatient with her as she fails to produce the heir he needs to secure his position. O'Farrell excels at sumptuous set pieces: Lucrezia's encounter with a tiger her father keeps in the basement beneath their palace, the wedding where she is draped and almost swallowed up by her gown, her meetings with the mysterious figures at her new home, particularly her enigmatic husband. By imagining an alternative fate for Lucrezia that deviates from the historical record, the author crafts a captivating portrait of a woman attempting to free herself from a golden cage. Fans of the accomplished Hamnet won't be disappointed by this formidable outing. Agent: Christy Fletcher, Fletcher & Co. (Sept.)
Having won a stack of awards for the Shakespearian meditation Hamnet, O'Farrell moves on to 1550s Florence, where barely pubescent Lucrezia de Medici is content to be the obscure third daughter of the grand duke. Then an older sister dies on the eve of marrying the ruler of Ferrara, Moderna, and Regio, and the groom opts for Lucrezia instead. Lucrezia can't understand her new husband is both a lover of the arts and a fearsome politician, but her job is clear: to produce an heir.