The Virgin Blue was Tracy Chevalier’s debut novel, first published in 1997. The only other book I’ve read by Chevalier is her most recent one, Remarkable Creatures, but I found both the writing style and atmosphere of this one entirely different.
The Virgin Blue follows two separate storylines, one from the present and one from the past, which eventually become woven together. In the modern day story, we meet Ella Turner who leaves her home in California and moves to the small French village of Lisle-sur-Tarn when her husband is offered a new job in France. Ella has trouble fitting into her new community – the local people are hostile and unwelcoming, and only the librarian Jean-Paul makes any attempt at friendship. As she begins to dig deeper into her family history, Ella’s hair begins to turn gradually red and, haunted by dreams of a brilliant blue, she starts to become aware of the parallels between her own life and that of her 16th century ancestor, a girl called Isabelle.
Isabelle de Moulin was a young peasant girl, known as La Rousse in reference to her red hair, who married Etienne Tournier, a man from a Huguenot family. With her red hair, her skills as a midwife and her love of the Virgin Mary and the colour blue, Isabelle is an object of suspicion. When the Tourniers find themselves under threat from their neighbouring Catholics, they are forced to flee France for Geneva in Switzerland, where they can follow their religion in freedom. It’s Isabelle’s tragic story that forms the second thread in The Virgin Blue.
I thought the alternating time periods in this book were handled well and they were each written in a distinctive style so that there could be no confusion. The Isabelle chapters had a dreamlike feel, almost like reading a fairytale. These chapters were also very sad and dark. Poor Isabelle was surrounded by cruel, vindictive people and seemed to have very little happiness in her life. Her story unfolded very slowly, being interspersed with Ella’s, and from the beginning there was always a sense of foreboding, a feeling that something bad was going to happen to Isabelle or her children.
I loved the setting of rural France, with its beautiful countryside and picturesque villages. Chevalier gives just enough detail to bring the landscape to life, without weighing the story down with too much description. The one thing that let this novel down for me was the characters. With the possible exception of Jean-Paul none of them felt quite real to me. I thought Rick, Ella’s husband, was especially bland and wooden, to the point where I didn’t even care what happened to him. The characters in the 16th century storyline never really came to life for me either.
So The Virgin Blue, for me, was an enjoyable but forgettable book. Despite the weak characters, I was able to become absorbed in the story while I was reading it but by the next day it was already fading from my mind. Having read Chevalier’s oldest book and her newest I’m now looking forward to reading the ones in between!