Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Lady and the Unicorn

I really enjoyed Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring a few years ago, so when I spied her The Lady and the Unicorn in the audio book section of the library a few weeks ago, I grabbed it. I've had the novel languishing on the TBR shelf for years now, but this seemed like a perfect book for the car...and gym. Now that I've started treading the mill twice a week, my book consumption should skyrocket!

Back to The Lady and the Unicorn. It was great. I particularly enjoyed the different voices of the various characters, starting with Nicolas des Innocents, the Lothario portrait painter who designed the tapestries which now hang in Musée de Cluny, the various women who inspired him both artistically and sensually, from the spoiled daughter of his patron, her mother, and the mother/daughter of the weaver who creates the final product.

Not much is really known about Jean Le Viste, the French nobleman who commissioned the tapestries, and so I felt perfectly comfortable with the story that Chevalier created for their incarnation. In addition to providing an interesting story with interesting people that I came to care about, Chevalier skillfully imparts a lot of details about the daily life of the characters, be they noble, artisan, servant, or shopkeeper. I also learned about the mechanics of tapestry creation, a subject I happen to be very interested in, as well as a smattering regarding how guilds worked in medieval Europe. All fascinating stuff.

My absolute favorite character was Christine, the weaver's wife, who is a strong individual and a talented weaver in her own right. In the story, she finally gets the chance to weave--the guild won't let women weave but her husband was so pressed for time, that he let her. She is also a true partner and soulmate to her husband, a practical but loving and tender mother, and a plain-spoken but devout woman. Strong but not headstrong. I've often said that, much as I love to read history, I would have gone crazy had I lived in a time other than now, but Christine is an intriguing portrait of a woman who can adapt and bend and still stay true to who she is.

My second favorite character is Christine's daugher, Alienor. She is blind, she is dependent, and yet she saves herself from a horrible fate. She is strong and knows who she is and what she believes in. In contrast, the noblewomen, Jean La Viste's wife and daughter, are trapped, resentful, and bitter in their velvet cages.

All of the women in their turn, including the servant girls and ladies in waiting, are seduced by the unicorn, Nicolas des Innocents, but then they seduce/entrap him as well.

The Lady and the Unicorn is a well-crafted, interesting, imaginative novel that works on multiple levels and was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Good thing I'm on the wait list for Chevalier's latest, Remarkable Creatures.


  1. Welcome back, Jane! I hope your holiday in NY city was exciting. I just want to wish you a very happy Easter!

  2. Happy Easter!
    I enjoyed The Girl with the Pearl Earring, haven't read The Lady and The Unicorn or any other Tracy Chevalier work yet.

    If you like books about art, have you read Headlong by Michael Frayn? Highly recommended.

  3. My mother-in-law loved The Girl with the Pearl Earring, but I have never gotten around to reading it. Now that I have your recommendation, perhaps I'll find the motivation! This book sound fascinating.

  4. Interesting review - thanks indeed for posting. I like the idea of different voices - i was really struck by your comment in that area and am motivated to pick up the book!

    thanks indeed and have a happy Monday!


  5. I have read a couple of Chevalier's books, but not this one. It does sound like something that I would really love, and your reactions to it were wonderful. It's lovely to see an older book being reviewed with such aplomb! I am going to be adding this one to the wish list. Thanks, and great review!

  6. The Girl With The Pearl Earring didn't do that much for me but this one does sound really interesting. Definitely going to have to give Chevalier another chance.

  7. I love Chevalier. I think my favorite is definitely Falling Angels, but I really did love Lady and the Unicorn. Glad you enjoyed it!