Though oddly reminiscent in plot to Barbara Erskine's best-selling Lady of Hay, Tracy Chevalier's first novel is a pleasure to read. It doesn't quite achieve the heights of Girl with a Pearl Earring, (hence the 4 star rating,) but shares its unforced sympathy for its characters, erotic tension, ability to evoke the past and clarity of style.
Five hundred years ago, a red-haired Huguenot girl, La Rousse, sees her mother, a sage-femme or midwife, killed in the remote Cevenol area of France. Subsequently, she is married, unwillingly, to a bullying husband and forced with others of his faith from their home. She falls in love with an Italian pedlar and is mysteriously protected by a wolf, before her love of a piece of blue cloth brings disaster. When Ella Turner, an American married to Rick, comes to the same area she begins to be haunted by flashes of the colour blue - the colour of the Virgin Mary's robe. She is trying to become pregnant, although her relationship with her husband is increasingly compromised by an attraction to the French librarian, Jean-Paul. With his help, and that of her Swiss relations, Ella uncovers fragments of an ancient crime involving the persecution of the Hugenots and the presence of the mysterious blue of the Virgin's robe...and as she does so, her own hair turns red, like that of her ancestress.
The novel switches between Ella's narrative voice and an account of a past that may or may not be "true". Ella is a highly engaging character - quirky, stubborn, funny, and completely at odds with the provincial French town in which she finds herself. Her growing passion for Jean-Paul is conveyed with an economy that successfully skirts the novelettish, and her professional pride in her work as a midwife gives her a realism that is particularly welcome in a tale of shifting times and perceptions. An excellent and entertaining novel, which will be enjoyed by fans of Alice Hoffman and Rose Tremain.
This is a beautifully written debut novel. Exquisite in its imagery and clarity of language, the author tells two parallel tales. One takes place in sixteenth century France, during the Protestant reformation and religious persecution of the Huguenots (Protestants). The other takes place in present day France. There are historical ties that bind these two stories, as well as a haunting familial legacy that reaches out across time to makes itself felt in the present.
The sixteenth century tale is based around a young woman, Isabelle du Moulin, who marries a boorish lout named Etienne Tournier, the oldest son of one of the more prominent families in their provincial town in France. She is a young woman upon whom the Virgin Mary made a great impression, when she was but a girl. The Tourniers, however, are believers of the new, harsh, Calvinist faith, and so Isabelle must also fully subscribe to it, if she is to survive in her husbands family and in the town in which she lives. When the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre occurs, in which Huguenots are slain without mercy throughout all of France, Isabelle is forced to flee to safety with what remains of her husband's family. Unhappy in her marriage, she goes on to have an event occur in her life that is so tragic that her pain and sorrow is made palpable in the present, touching one of her ancestors, Ella Turner.
Of course, the parallel tale focuses around Ella Turner, a young, married American woman, who moves to France with her husband Rick, in order to advance his career. Ella agrees to the move, because it will take her to the region in France from which she knows her family originated. Once in France, Emma has some difficulty acclimating to life in the small provincial town to which they have moved, as well as to its denizens. Ella also finds herself having inexplicable nightmares and begins to feel herself somewhat alienated from her husband. To occupy her time, she begins a quest to discover more about her French ancestry. As Ella's story unfolds, alternating with the parallel story of Isabelle, commonalities between the past and present begin to emerge. These parallel stories then converge in a stunning denouement to resolve a tragedy of the past in the present.
I absolutely loved this book, as it covered many of the genres that I enjoy. The author combines historical fiction, suspense, romance, and touch of the supernatural all in one beautifully realized novel. The author writes with the heart of a poet and the soul of a great storyteller, one whose prose is delicately nuanced as she weaves gossamer threads of a tale well told. This is simply a superlative and stunning debut novel that will keep the reader turning its pages until the very last. Bravo!
Fate (or her husband's job) brings Ella to France and strange things start happening. Suddenly her life seems intertwined with that of Isabelle du Moulin, 500 years earlier. She starts dreaming of the Virgin Blue, her hair turns red and little by little, as Ella is finding out about her family history; Chevalier lets the reader discover the secret that is plaguing Ella's dreams and taking over her life.
Chevalier's style of writing is incredibly vivid and imaginative and I found myself being able to picture myself in the various locations, without tedious descriptive passages. As with Girl With A Pearl Earring and Falling Angels Chevalier's characters are expertly brought to life with only sparse comments and body language.
With a book as this it would have been easy to make the connection between Ella and Isabelle to strong, too obvious, but Chevalier lets them live their own lives and only ties them together at a few strategically important points. My only complaint now is that I will have to wait almost another year before I get to read a new book by Tracy Chevalier.
on 4 August 2001
Ella Turner, Tracy Chevalier's main character, arrives in France from America almost an appendage of her husband for it is his job that they have followed. Gradually, as Ella becomes Ella Tournier and tries to follow the haunting dreams that she has, we see the development of her character into the real Ella Turner/Tournier. This novel is evocative of Chocolat by Joanne Harris, with similar touches of mysticism and the same feel for the characters, landscapes and architecture of France. The characters are many faceted and although there are several clues along the way, with the interwoven chapters about Ella's long ago relatives, the Tournier family, the climax of the book is still both shocking and moving.I felt sorrow and regret for characters from almost 500 years ago as if they were really living today. A fabulous, page turning read and I can't wait to read Girl With a Pearl Earring by the same author.
on 23 September 2003
This book is exquisite; if you're interested in history, geography, puzzles, religion, people, or even simply in the texture and colour of beautifully written prose, read it.
But be warned: make sure you buy more than one copy. Because when you finish reading, you will want to share it with others - and you will also want to go back to the beginning and read the whole thing again, just in case you missed any of the clues the first time round.
on 14 December 2001
This is Tracy Chevalier's debut novel. It concerns an American called Ella Turner who has moved to France to be with her husband as he pursues the next stage in his career. Her father suggests that she take the opportunity to visit her relatives in Switzerland, but Ella points out that Switzerland is a whole different country, and besides, she's never met her cousins before.
Ella decides to continue her own career as a midwife in France, but although her French is good, she struggles to adapt. She's not given a particularly warm welcome. She and her husband Rick decide to try for a baby, but each time they try to conceive, Ella is tormented by a nightmare in which a particular shade of blue predominates. She hides her anguish from Rick, and decides to follow up her father's suggestion about finding out more about her family. Although her family does have its historic roots in the Cevennes, finding out about them turns out to be quite difficult. The fact that the family moved from France to Switzerland though does tend to suggest that they were Huguenots persecuted after the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Eve. Ella tries to register at the library under the original Turner family name, 'Tournier', and is distraught when the haughty librarian refuses her request. However, it seems that the librarian has been moved to act on her emotional request after all. It's not long before Ella is aided and hindered in her search for her family by this enigmatic librarian, Jean-Paul.
Intertwined with Ella's story is that of La Rousse, Isabelle du Moulin. She's called La Rousse because this is a Cevenol nickname for a girl with red hair (although maybe Chevalier was also inspired by the story of Joan of Arc, who stayed with a woman called La Rousse before starting her crusade). Red hair is also associated with the red hair of the Virgin Mary, an association that Isabelle is all too aware of. It seems throughout the novel that she has never fully converted to Protestantism like the huge majority of her community, and one of her daughters is even named Marie. One of the themes of this novel is how traits are handed down the generations. Isabelle becomes midwife just like her mother, and although her mother has taught her a great deal of the secrets concerned with this trade, there is also the sense that it comes naturally to her. I think that one of the most crucial passages in the book is that on page 88: Ella Turner is driving through the French countryside when she notices the growth of Queen Anne's Lace and jack-in-the-pulpit. Although no reference is made to this in the text, both these plants have been employed as traditional herbal remedies for conception, with contrary effects. Maybe Ella has learnt about these plants as part of her midwife training back home in the US, but I like to think that this is Chevalier's way of saying that Ella knows instinctively to look out for these plants as part of her genetic code to be a midwife. This passage certainly shows, as did Falling Angels, that Chevalier's research is very thorough and that she has a very subtle approach to using this data. Jean-Paul does criticise certain fabulous coincidences, but no doubt he also has similar enthusiasm for his research when it springs up the incredible but true. The Cevennes has also traditionally been home to a particularly vicious breed of wolf, which has very much torn its way into local legend.
In Falling Angels, Tracy Chevalier reveals that she always reads an author's acknowledgements in the hope of finding their true voice, and what they're really like. Here, you can't help but wonder how autobiographical this novel is, especially when her bio in the book reveals that "She has family in the United States, France and Switzerland". The fact that Ella seems so intent on researching Etienne Tournier may be obliquely related to the fact that an Etienne Chevalier was treasurer to the French King and a great patron of the arts in the Fifteenth Century. After all, Tracy Chevalier did mention the music hall song "'Appy 'Ampstead" in Falling Angels because a certain Albert Chevalier wrote it. Jean-Paul typically drives a Citroen Deux Chevaux, but the inn in Moutier really is called Cheval Blanc. The resolution of The Virgin Blue is also reminiscent of the end to Falling Angels. It may be that some of these links are just as much 'red fish' as Nicolas Tournier (the 'Virgin Blue' actually comes from a painting by Bellini). However, just as Ella seems to genetically share Isabelle's trade, then so can we all instinctively react to every parent's nightmare. To some readers, it may seem as though the climax does literally come out of the blue, but a close reading of the text does reveal that Chevalier has laid down clues here and there, and I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt and let her get away with it. Tracy Chevalier has very much done her homework. It seems that the Tournier family may have much more sinister traits than just the practice of kissing three times in greeting...
This was the first book I read by Tracey Chevalier and I enjoyed it so much that I have since read them all.
I have to admit I knew little about sixteenth century French history before I read this and the story of Isabelle was fascinating. She lead a hard life, married into a harsh family who required her to follow their religion and treated her badly. Sadly, her story ends in tragedy.
When American, Ella Turner travels to France with her husband's work, she finds herself with time on her hands and decides to look into her ancestors' history. She feels drawn towards Isabelle and repeatedly suffers nightmares that she cannot explain.
As the two stories unfold in alternating chapters, the truth is revealed and Isabelle can finally rest in peace.
Excellent book, don't miss it.
on 4 November 2003
I have loved all of Tracy Chevalier's books, The girl with the pearl earing, falling angels and the lady and the unicorn, they are all great but this one really does capture the imagination and stays in your mind for a long time after finishing it!
Buy them all!
on 30 July 2012
Ella Turner and Isabelle du Moulin are two women born centuries apart, yet bound by a fateful family legacy.
I sat down with this book and didn't put it down until I had finished I was hooked from the first page. I loved being introduced to Isabelle and her way of life since it is so far from anything I have ever known, I had heard nothing of the religious wars in the 1500s so it was quite educational for me. I have a love affair with France and have loved it ever since I visited when I was 14 so the setting for this book was magical to me.
When we are introduced to Ella Turner (Tournier) I was a little disappointed by her character she is a lot less likable than Isabelle as she engages in an affair with Jean-Paul, the first French man to give her a little attention. Not only that she is dramatic and self obsessed worrying about trivial things unlike her ancestor Isabelle who endures true hardships but keeps a brave face. This isn't a complaint about the book though I enjoyed it so much that even Ella's infidelity didn't put me off.
It is a heartbreaking and beautiful story I only wish that Isabelle got her happy ending the same way Ella did
on 24 May 2014
The works of this author were recommended by a friend. I purchased this one because I was attracted by the history storyline that I knew little about. I enjoyed the book overall, reading it over a few rainy days, but did not find the characters particularly likeable.