Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Lady and the Unicorn, Tracy Chevalier

I'm a  pretty big fan of historical fiction.  To be honest, I wish that history classes were taught using historical fiction as the hook.  Read Ken Follett, then research the time period to confirm or deny his portrayal. (Of course, I think that literature can teach us just about anything).

For instance, if you were interested in art, say the process of making tapestries, in the 17th century, you could read Tracy Chevalier's The Lady and the Unicorn.  Much as she did in The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Chevalier used a famous piece of art from the past and created an elaborate backstory using characters based on the real artists, artisans, nobles, petty bureaucrats, and common folk who contributed (either in reality or in the fictional world she creates) to the creation of that work of art. In The Lady and the Unicorn, we are introduced to an arrogant Parisian artist named Nicholas des Innocentes (who is anything but).  This womanizer is commissioned by a newly noble patron to design a set of tapestries to be hung in his formal dining room.  Nicholas agrees, though not before seducing the young daughter of his patron.  When he insists on traveling to Brussels to oversee the work of turning his smallish paintings into large tapestries, we meet the weaver, Georges, and his family.  Jumping back and forth between Paris and Brussels, we learn a lot about French society, the social expectations of men and women based on their gender and station, and about making tapestries in the pre-industrial age.

The best parts of the book for me was the descriptions of the tapestry making process.  The process was incredibly painstaking, and could takes months or years to complete depending on the size of the tapestry and the complexity of the pattern.  The plot itself has enough drama to make it an enjoyable read even if you don't care about the art-making parts, with lots of twists and turns.  There is lust, love, betrayal-all of the components of a satisfying read.  The story is old through alternating perspectives, which has become a very common narrative style, and Chevalier does a good job making the story feel cohesive despite the frequent change in narrator.  As historical fiction goes, I suspect this book is longer on the fiction than the history, but either way it is an an enjoyable way to spend a few hours!