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by Tracy Chevalier
Plume (Trade Paper), 2003
Review by Su Terry on Nov 19th 2003

The Virgin Blue

            The 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 and Switzerland, 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 College, Long Island, NY.