Does great sex give great children? Norman Mailer thought so (of course), but other authors have also circled this topic. If you have a bad night in bed when you and your partner conceive, maybe it’s a matter of karma – maybe you’ll have a blah child.
At the start of Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, ‘The Marriage Portrait’, Duchess Eleanora finishes having sex with her husband, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. We are in 1544. The setting: a palace in Florence.
The Grand Duke ends happily and powerfully with “his usual howling gasp,” but Eleanora knows something is wrong. She had been inattentive, staring at disturbing images on the walls – maps filled with “strange and wild seas, filled with dragons and monsters” – instead of keeping her mind on her own legendary fecundity.
Her previous children are well brought up. But Lucrezia, which emerges nine months later? She is “screaming”, “intractable”, “impossible”, “inconsolable” and “wild”. Like an animal, she prefers to eat her food on the ground. She screams for days; she is banished to the basement kitchen.
We get it: Lucrezia is a pint-sized inferno. On page 15 of “The Marriage Portrait,” we also understand that this historical romance borders on steamy and operatic. Then we are introduced to the tiger, and we should talk about the tiger.
The Grand Duke wants the animal to complete his menagerie, as tigers are (as Vincent Price’s voice indicates) “vicious and singular beasts”. This is about where “The Marriage Portrait” starts to boil and the CGI effects kick into motion.
“The tigress did not so much walk as she poured herself,” writes O’Farrell, “as if her very essence was melted, quivering, like silt from a volcano.” Ooze is the right word.
She continues: “The animal was orange, burnished gold, flesh made of fire; she was power and anger, she was vicious and exquisite. The tiger’s cry is a “desperate, desperate rattle”.
O’Farrell is notably the author of “Hamnet”, a largely fictional account of the life and untimely death of Shakespeare’s son; it won a National Book Critic’s Circle award in 2021. Some of the pickiest, most engaged readers I know take “Hamnet” seriously.
“Hamnet” wasn’t ridiculous the way “The Marriage Portrait” is ridiculous; at best, it was a touching portrait of grief. But he too threw himself into lush atmospheres, for lots of rustling leaves, to create scenes that aspired to be cradles of enchantment.
He too had little acute perception, little wit, and little humble sense of life as it is lived near the ground. Reading each one, I rather long for – for the reason one goes to a good restaurant – something simple and unassuming.
AS Byatt once told The Paris Review that to read Tolkien you have to do it in a primitive way. “If you start thinking“, said Byatt, “you have to stop reading. “Maybe that’s also the thing with ‘Hamnet’ and ‘The Marriage Portrait’.
(My favorite O’Farrell novel is 2013’s more down-to-earth “Instructions for a Heatwave,” in which a young woman arriving in New York does so “like someone tripping when walking into a room.” )
“The Wedding Portrait” tells the somewhat true story of Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici, who at age 15 was forced by her parents to marry the eldest Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, thus merging two dynasties.
Alfonso takes her to another palace, where she suffers. It is subject to totalitarian surveillance. She is kept largely to herself, but like Van Gogh, she has a great ear. She can hear intrigues through walls and around corners of passages.
Outside, nature is, like the tiger, vicious and exquisite. The Po river laps on its banks with “weary ocher tongues”. Inside, Lucrezia’s heart is fearsome and full: “Flames, vibrant and consoling, lick her entrails, a fire kindles, crackles and smolders.”
When she speaks, others lean in, “as if every syllable Lucrezia utters is a fragile filament of gold suspended in the air.”
In the first chapter, we learn that Alfonso probably intends to kill Lucrezia, in part because she was unable, through fault, to conceive an heir. As with “Hamnet”, the scenes cleverly jump in time, carrying forward this calculation.
A second kind of accountability is emerging. Lucrezia will have to sleep with Alfonso at some point, and the timing is delayed as long as possible. Things are rising to a crescendo that Bernard Herrmann would envy. Sex is as awful as we know it will be: “burning, intrusive, intrusive”.
But a dynasty is at stake and Lucrezia must be pollinated without mercy. The later sex scenes in the novel have overtones of “The Shape of Water”, Guillermo del Toro’s film.
Alfonso becomes like “a river god, an aquatic monster” with “the gills hidden in his throbbing, throbbing neck”. Her face is a “grotesque mask above her: a face of fury, intent, inextinguishable need”.
You hope that Lucrezia could be impregnated by a rain of light, as Zeus impregnated Danae, and thus spared. You also keep the hope that this victim will eventually become a destroyer.
Crush of the weekend
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Murder and unwanted sex are the main drivers of the narrative. In this novel, the characters are so one-dimensional and overworked that the strength of none of the drivers lands. The novelist begins to look like a conjurer forcing cards.
Anyway, as Elizabeth Hardwick said, “If I want a plot, I’ll watch ‘Dallas’.”
“THE WEDDING PORTRAIT”
Alfred A. Knopf. 348 pages. $28.