The Lady and the Unicorn

lady-and-unicornOne of my favorite topics to discuss with my college students as we’re warming up in French class is what they’re reading lately. I enjoy hearing what they like to read, and occasionally they are so passionate about it that they make me promise to read their latest favorite. That’s how I read Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, a novel about the making of the famous 15th-century unicorn tapestries: one of my students loved this book so much that not only did she extract a promise from me to read it, she brought the book from home and put it in my hands.

In 1488, Nicolas des Innocents, an overconfident, lusty young artist, is commissioned by the wealthy aristocrat Jean le Viste to create tapestries for his great hall. Nicolas catches sight of Le Viste’s lovely daughter, Claude, and they are immediately attracted to each other, but he has no time to complete his seduction before he must travel to Brussels, where the best millefleur weaving is done. While in Brussels, he develops a relationship with the family of weavers, including their blind daughter Alienor, and the faces of the women he meets find their way into the designs he draws: Claude, her mother Genevieve, Alienor, and others. The point of view shifts from person to person in each chapter, so we learn about the inner life of people of different stations and professions, until finally the tapestry is complete.

This isn’t the kind of book I would have picked up on my own. It’s not history — very little is known about the real creation of the unspeakably lovely unicorn tapestries — and it’s not exactly romance, which means it kind of falls between two stools. I do read historical fiction, but I’ve read about the fifteenth century before, in all its cruelty, complexity, power and glory, and Tracy Chevalier is no Dorothy Dunnett. The characters felt two-dimensional to me, with “cocky” or “religious” or “blind” painted on them. Parts of the writing were cleverly done, and other parts were awkward (what on earth is a “cherry bum”?), with a few really obvious anachronisms. Still, I’m not sorry to have read something my student loved so much, and I plan to keep asking for recommendations. I never know what I’ll find.

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6 Responses to The Lady and the Unicorn

  1. Steph says:

    I’ve never read any Tracy Chevalier before – her stuff never really piqued my interest. I feel like lately she’s been eclipsed by Philippa Gregory in terms of the pseudo-historical fiction genre. I love a good romp as much as the next gal, but something about these novels don’t really appeal to me (although I think I would have gobbled them up at 16!). Your review was great though, as it gave me a clearer picture of what Chevalier’s books really are like (rather than basing it on my totally uninformed opinions). It’s nice finding book recommendations in the strangest of places! Trying something outside of your reading comfort zone can definitely pay off in spades!

  2. If you ever get the chance to go to Paris – you must visit Le Musee du Moyen Age – where the tapestries are housed. They are hung simply in a beautiful oval room, and I can sit on the bench and gaze at them for hours. Even my eight year old daughter was entranced when we went to Paris last year. They are without doubt, (along with 1 particular Renoir in the Musee d’Orsay), my favourite thing in Paris.

    I read the book having seen them once already. I got a lot more out of reading the book about how tapestries are made etc. My return visit was all the better for it too, although the novel is not a great one.

  3. Simon S says:

    I am yet to read any Chevalier at all and think this one might not be the one to start with. I always fancy her books when I see them I just never actually pick them up and buy them, isnt it funny how we do that with some authors?

  4. Jenny says:

    Steph — I love getting recommendations from all kinds of places. I have definitely found it pays off, which is why I love the book-blogging community!

    Annabel — I’ve seen the tapestries, and there are simply no words for their loveliness. Some of my favorite things in Paris, too.

    Simon — I think it’s that her books have such beautiful covers!

  5. Teresa says:

    I read Chevalier’s A Girl with a Pearl Earring a few years ago and thought the book was entertaining but not really satisfying. I think you’ve got it quite right that it falls between two stools–not quite history and not quite romance. The Birth of Venus and Beneath a Marble Sky are very similar: simplistic characters, plenty of melodrama, anachronistic attitudes. I don’t mind this kind of book every now and then, but I wish there were more good, complex historical fiction out there.

  6. Jenny says:

    Teresa — so do I, wish there were more good historical fiction. I really love living into another time, and when it’s well-researched and convincing, it’s some of my favorite stuff. Dunnett and O’Brian are not a dime a dozen!

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