Wednesday, September 01, 2004

A Sorrowful Horror

The Virgin Blue, by Tracy Chevalier, Read by Janine Carter and Gigi Marceau Clarke, HighBridge Company, 2003

Tracy Chevalier’s first book, The Virgin Blue, was a critical triumph in England, though sales were not quite enough to push the book across the water until her subsequent success with Girl with a Pearl Earring. It’s the cold math of sales that dictate these things, and on a certain level I can understand the investment involved, but such a finely written, moving, and engaging novel with such paeans written to it you’d think would get the nod.

In it we follow two stories that converge at the end, though are circling around each other throughout the course of the book. The Virgin Blue begins with the advent of Calvinism in southern France and its struggles against Catholicism. The conversion of the town happens a bit too quickly for believability, as the Mariolators quickly turn against La Rousse (as Mary was known in that region, her hair supposedly a shade of red) and tear down her statue and break the church’s only stained glass window. But as this comes at the book’s beginning when we meet one of our protagonists, the red haired Isabelle du Moulin, at such a young age, perhaps we are getting only a child’s perspective on the fervor. The change just seems mysterious and perhaps that's the point, that the ideologies of the past are sometimes a mystery.

Within the first chapter, the town converts whole-heartedly to Calvinism, Isabelle’s sister dies in childbirth and her mother dies later, her two brothers leave to fight in a war against the Catholics, she gets pregnant, and she marries Etienne Tournier, abusive son of a well-to-do family in her village. It’s a busy set up that immediately switches focus with chapter two.

In this chapter, we are introduced to Ella Turner and her husband Rick. These two have moved to France because of Rick’s job with an architectural firm. His character is never fully developed outside of being an all-American type who everyone seems to get along with, a big, handsome, pony-tail sporting go-with-the-flow type. Ella herself is less easygoing. She is suspicious of the shopkeepers who are aloof, judgmental, and gossipy. While Rick’s work is in the near big city of Toulouse, Ella decides they will live in Lille simply for a change of pace from San Francisco where they had lived. This is not the best decision as she quickly comes to feel isolated from the close-minded small town French.

At some point, as is common with Americans abroad for long-term stays, Ella gets the genealogy bug and begins searching out her ancestors (Turner being an Anglicized Tournier), and this leads her to Isabelle. Her researches are spurred by a bad dream of hers that consists of a blue dress and her own voice reciting the 31st Psalm in French. The blue matches the color of a dress worn by Mary in a Renaissance painting she finds in a local cathedral, the artist being a Nicola Tournier.

Ella is assisted in her quest by the unhandsome and rather snotty town librarian Jean-Paul who, as the opposite in every way of her husband, she ultimately begins to have feelings for. This is simply the hardest part of the book to fathom, the motiveless ejection of Rick for the snippy Jean-Paul. More time is spent on Ella’s story than on Isabelle’s though the latter’s is by far the more interesting of the two stories.

The harsher times that Isabelle lives in with soldiers raping and looting, with sudden religious conversions, with a cruelty and brutality that at times goes beyond horrific, grips the reader a bit more tightly, forces the reader to invest a bit more compassion for the characters. When you watch Ella suffer through a bad dream or a nasty patch of psoriasis, it lacks a certain dramatic elan. These are not the things that immortal stories are made of.

It’s not that Ella’s story isn’t interesting in its own right. Chevalier makes it interesting, injecting a note of mystery hunting into the tale, Ella going on trips to Switzerland and across France to find out the story of her family’s past. The book moves back and forth, one chapter for Ella and one for Isabelle. The two readers of the book help solidify the two personalities, the French reader, Clarke, giving all the words the right intonation and lilting accent while the American reader, Carter, lends Ella’s story the right tone of self-pity and unabashed enthusiasm. The two readers give big shifts to the feel and resonance of the novel. One of the strengths of this approach is that each scene ends with an understated bit of drama, and as each new section starts, I think “Oh, this is the story I like better anyway. I want to hear how this ends.”

Near the book's end when a verifiably supernatural element moves into Ella's story, it finally gains serious ground for my interest. The alternating chapters stops as a device, with the denouement being one long section of short alternating scenes coming fast on each other’s heels. What approaches is a horrific ending that you see coming a long way off, but as it moved ever closer I kept trying to reassure myself. “That won’t really happen. It can’t. They’d never. It’s too, too awful. Surely not.”

The ending to Isabelle’s story, horrific as it is, does happen. It’s been a long time since a book forced tears into my eyes. At that moment, the book takes a nightmarish turn that is hard to escape from, and the scenes following, tidying up Ella’s suddenly messy life, hang there a bit difficult to work up any strong emotions about one way or the other. I followed the closing minutes of the book with a bit of shock somewhat less interested in Ella’s divorce of Rick and her pregnancy and more in what became of Isabelle after such events.

The book doesn’t disappoint on that score. And its few disappointments hardly seem worth mentioning, the weaknesses inherent in many a first novel, especially one as ambitious and as heart-felt as this one.

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