THE LADY AND THE UNICORN by Tracy Chevalier
Genre: Historical Fiction
How Acquired: BarnesandNoble.com
Reading Began: December 24, 2004
Completed Reading: December 28, 2004
Overall rating: Six out of ten
Recommendation to others: Fans of the author will likely find this book enjoyable, though I recommend Girl With A Pearl Earring much more than this one.
Why I chose to read this book: When I purchased this book I was still on a literary high from Girl With A Pearl Earring, believing that Tracy Chevalier had a true gift for imagery and historical fiction. Since then, I’ve read Chevalier’s other two books, Falling Angels and The Virgin Blue, and felt compelled to complete the reading of her works.
Comments: I was disappointed in this book as it began, not embracing Chevalier’s overtly sexual tones. It is understandable to have one character in the book be so crass, but to have the language appear in chapter after chapter, character after character, was off-putting. What could have been a moving and engaging story about the creation of the intriguing tapestries became simply a sideline to the lewdness of the characters. I will even go so far as to say that the characters themselves sullied the story that Chevalier was attempting to tell. And that was indeed disappointing. Still, Chevalier did write a few characters into the tale that salvaged the book and made it engrossing in the end.
This story is at its best when focusing strictly on the creation of the unicorn tapestries. From brainstorming to display, the tapestries are richly described and immensely appealing, with Chevalier’s prose sometimes nearing the emotional level of Girl. It is the tapestries which should be center stage, and that makes the final section of the book a standout. Though the character of Nicholas des Innocents, the painter who first rendered the design, does redeem himself at some point in the story, it is the weavers of the tapestries who are most intriguing. It is they who make the tapestries what they came to be, them to whom I would credit their success and appeal. And when Chevalier finally decides to lay the story entirely in their world, The Lady and the Unicorn is most engaging. Fascinating though the original paintings were, it was the technical aspects of creating the actual tapestries that give this book its weight, not to mention its heart.
Having read all of Chevalier’s novels now, I will say that this one ranks a distant second to Girl With A Pearl Earring, though better than Falling Angels. I will certainly read more of the author’s work as it is published in the future, but I am not completely awed by her as I was after reading Girl. For some reason, nothing else has quite measured up. But she does have a gift for surrounding a work of art, a piece of history, with a story that could easily be imagined true. The Lady and the Unicorn is one book that I am happy to share with other readers, a book I will recommend to fans of Chevalier, but it is not a book that I would like to read again.
Memorable Characters: There are many characters in this book who were irritating and even repulsive—Claude la Viste, for whom the tapestries were ultimately made, being one of the most obnoxious and petulant characters I’ve read in some time—but a few did stand out as truly interesting and worthy of elegant prose. Most of all was Geneviève de Nanterre—mother to Claude, husband to the man who commissioned the tapestries, and the person responsible for making the designs of unicorns instead of a battle. Geneviève was the only person in the book worthy of the title “lady”, and she proved herself to be quite a force without ever raising up to honor herself. Hers were the chapters to which I was engaged, and hers was the story I most wanted to hear.
For a moment I thought I would hit [Claude] across her plump red mouth so that it bled. I took a deep breath. “Ma fille, it’s clearly you who knows nothing of me.” I opened the door. “Béatrice!” I bellowed so loudly it carried throughout the house. The steward must have heard it in his storerooms, the cook in his kitchen, the grooms in the stables, the maids on the stairs. If Jean were in he would certainly hear it in his chamber.
There was a short silence, like the pause between the lightning and the thunder. Then the door to the next room burst open and Béatrice came running through, the ladies behind her. She slowed when she saw me standing in the doorway. The ladies stopped at intervals in the room, like pearls on a string. Jeanne and Petite Geneviève remained in the doorway to my chamber, peeking out.
I reached for Claude’s arm and pulled her roughly to the door so that she was facing Béatrice. “Béatrice, you are now my daughter’s lady-in-waiting. You are to remain with her at all hours of the day and night. You will go with her to mass, to market, to visits, to the tailor’s, to her dancing lessons. You will eat with her, sleep with her—not in the closet but in her bed. You will never leave her side. You will stand by her when she pisses in the pot.” One of the ladies gasped. “If she sneezes, you will know it. If she belches or farts, you will smell it.” Claude was crying now. “You will know when her hair needs combing, when her courses run, when she cries.
At the May Day feast it will be your task, Béatrice, and all my ladies, to see that Claude comes close to no man there, either to speak to him or dance with him or even to stand next to him, for she cannot be trusted. Let her have a miserable evening.
First, though, the most important lesson my daughter must learn is respect for her parents. To the end you are to take her immediately to my mother’s at Nanterre for a week. I will send a messenger to tell her she may be quick with the whip if she needs to.” Geneviève de Nanterre (p. 59)
Now it was time to wind the warp onto the back beam before attaching it to the front beam to make the surface to weave on.
Warp threads are thicker than the weft, and made of a coarser wool as well. I think of them as like wives. Their work is not obvious—all you can see are the ridges they make under the colorful weft threads. But if they weren’t there, there would be no tapestry. Georges would unravel without me. Christine du Sablon (p. 113)