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Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier is an interesting, but also a
very disturbing historic novel. The novel portrays the lives of two women
separated by four hundred years, but both dealing with difficult marital
relationships and cultural discrimination.
The Virgin Blue is novel with one plot woven between two story
lines. Both tales are set in the same locations in France
but are from two different time periods. The main story focuses on Ella Turner,
an American woman living in the 1990s. When Ella's husband, Rick, an architect,
has an job opportunity to move from America
to France, Ella sees it as an opportunity to explore the
land of her ancestors, continue her midwifery practice, and to become a mother
herself. While scouting out a place to live, Ella is attracted to the small village
of Lisle-sur-Tarn and the couple eventually
moves there. Ella discovers, however, that her hopes and dreams are far from
her reality.† Small town life in France
is very "provincial" – pardon the pun. The villagers' perceive her
American behavior as scandalous. Her French is limited and the villagers refuse
to help her learn French or speak to her in English. Her dream to practice as a
midwife is also thwarted because she must first pass a French licensing exam.
Meanwhile Rick has easily settled into his new French life, developing many French-speaking
friends. Finally, lonely, frustrated, and feeling defeated, Ella decides to
spend her time investigating her family history. She quickly falls under the
spell of Jean-Paul, a local librarian who received his library degree in America.
Jean-Paul is happy to assist Ella to learn French and with her interest in French
genealogy. He is also eager to relieve Ella's marital boredom and to facilitate
her desire to become pregnant. In a parallel story, Ella's ancestress, Isabelle
du Moulin, also known as the "Rouse" because of her red hair. (The French people have a tradition that the
Virgin Mary had red hair and nicknamed her "La Rouse.") When Isabelle
becomes pregnant, she marries Etienne Tournier, a zealous Huguenot. Raised as a
Catholic, Isabelle converts. She soon learns that the Touniers are unforgiving and hate anything Catholic and for them with
her red hair and nickname, Isabelle is the epitome of Catholicism. Even her silent
mother-in-law does everything in her power to undermine Isabelle and her
marriage to her son. The two stories reach an explosive conclusion as Ella draws
ever closer to the buried past of her Turner/Tournier heritage and discovers her
ancestress faces her final clashes with the Tourniers' bigotry and is forced to
chose between Jean-Paul and Rick.
I must agree with members of my book club, that the historical thread of The Virgin Blue is the best part. The
background information about Catholic and Huguenot life was interesting as well
as their differing views about the roles and sanctity of women. The historic characters
are also more passionate and more poignant in the difficult circumstance they
are force to face. I found it hard to sympathize with Ella and her American parochialism.
She could have pre-learned the language of the country to which she was moving.
She should have realized that starting a new family just when her husband was
starting a new job might not be a good idea. And, as attractive as the French
countryside is, Toulouse might have been a better place to slowly shift into
French language and culture with more English opportunities for a frustrated
American. It was not easy to become too emotionally sympathetic for the
frustrated and bored Ella. Still I must applaud the author's incredible knack
for weaving the two stories into one continuous plot. This, the historical and
religious background, and the genealogical mystery surrounding the Turner/Tournier
family tree make this a worthwhile novel.
Tracy Chevalier is the author of
the internationally bestselling novels. Chevalier has
a M.A. in Creative Writing from the University
of East Anglia. She has written three
historical novels The Virgin Blue (1997), Girl with a Pearl
Earring (1998), and Falling Angels (2001). In 1997, W. H. Smith Publishers chose The Virgin Blue for its
Fresh Talent Promotion. Raised in Washington, DC, Chevalier
moved to England in 1984 and
currently lives in London with her husband and son. Her
next book, Lady and the Unicorn
will be released in Dec 2003. her website is http://www.tchevalier.com
The Virgin Blue by Tracy
Chevalier is an interesting historical read for a longer winter's
night. If you are more interested in history and genealogy, and are willing to slog
through the affairs of a bored American wife, this book is worth the read. I recommend the book.
© 2003 Su Terry
Su Terry: Education:
B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from
Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral
Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from
New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual
Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the
United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling
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