One 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.