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Radio 2 Book Club - The Marriage Portrait

The next book to be featured on the Radio 2 Book Club with Steve Wright will be The Marriage Portrait, the powerful new novel from best-selling author Maggie O’Farrell. The book was released on 30 August and Maggie will be on the show with Steve on Tuesday 27 September.

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The Marriage Portrait

Florence, the 1560s. Lucrezia, third daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, is free to wander the palazzo at will, wondering at its treasures and observing its clandestine workings. But when her older sister dies on the eve of marriage to Alfonso d’Este, heir to the Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight: Alfonso is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father to accept on her behalf.

Having barely left girlhood, Lucrezia must now make her way in a troubled court whose customs are opaque and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate he appears before their wedding, the aesthete happiest in the company of artists and musicians, or the ruthless politician before whom even his formidable sisters seem to tremble?

As Lucrezia sits in uncomfortable finery for the painting which is to preserve her image for centuries to come, one thing becomes worryingly clear. In the court’s eyes, she has one duty: to provide the heir who will shore up the future of the Ferrarese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, her future hangs entirely in the balance.

Selection panel review

The book was selected with the help of a panel of library staff from across the UK. Our readers loved The Marriage Portrait – here are some of their comments:

“I loved The Marriage Portrait. You could not help but be entranced by the young Lucrezia, the main character, as she weaved her way through 16th century Florence. From a young girl she was different, intelligent, artistic, not entranced by the trappings of wealth, of the pastimes of fashion etc. her sisters embroiled themselves within. When her elder sister died the night before her wedding, the Duke of Ferrera turned his attention to Lucrezia, and within the year she is married. On first appearances the Duke is attentive, caring, but glimpses of his dealings within his own court began to sow the seeds of doubt within Lucrezia. Whisked away to a remote lodge, Lucrezia soon learnt exactly what her husband really wanted. The genius of O’Farrell was not merely her storytelling but her narrative, the skill to spirit the reader to anywhere, anytime. The brilliance of Renaissance Italy, the art, the culture, the people dazzled from the page, the unerring way she burrowed into Lucrezia’s mind and thoughts. Top choice, just brilliant.”

“It took me a little while to get into the two different timelines, and the switching between. But I was enjoying the writing and happy to be patient. The whole premise of this book is immensely intriguing – a very young woman married to a powerful duke, older, a stranger, and sent away. The characterisation of both was strong. The sense of mounting danger built. I really wanted to know what was going to happen next. And the ending pulled off a wonderful surprise – which I won’t reveal here. The historical details, textures and sensory descriptions are all great.”

“This book takes a snapshot of history and opens it up to the reader in a gradual, absorbed way through the eyes of a privileged young girl destined for life as a pawn in the power politics of the day. Her sheltered life is described very well and the reader is taken through a journey of her maturing and awakening as seen through her eyes. The two very different sides of life in that period are brought into juxtaposition by the device of Lucrezia dressed as a servant, seeing the ‘hidden life of the Castello, the wrong side of its embroidery, with all the knots and weave and secrets on display’. The author cleverly describes it in one of Lucrezia’s limited terms of reference, her embroidery. Her artistic talents made me feel how wasted women’s lives would be throughout history, symbolised by the hiding of the ‘real’ paintings underneath a bland still life as expected of her work. Knowing the actual outcome of her tragic life gives the book a poignancy which is surprisingly lifted by the ending. The historical accuracy is good and evokes the period very well. Having looked at her portrait by De Agostini, I can see the inspiration for the sadness and suffering in the novel.”

About the author

Maggie O’Farrell, is the author of Hamnet, Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, and the memoir I am, I am, I am, both Sunday Times no. 1 bestsellers. Her novels include The Distance Between Us, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, and The Hand That First Held Mine, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award. She is also the author of Where Snow Angels Go, a novel for children. She lives in Edinburgh.

Get involved

Tune in to the Steve Wright show on Thursday 22 September to hear a live interview with Maggie.

Have you read The Marriage Portrait? You can share your thoughts with us on Twitter using #R2BookClub and #TheMarriagePortrait.

Planning to buy The Marriage Portrait for your group? Buy books from Hive or from and support The Reading Agency and local bookshops at no extra cost to you.

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