THE VIRGIN BLUE is one of those rare books whose title fits so well that it presents the old chicken/egg problem of which came first --- the idea for the book or the title itself. Likewise, the Goethe quote that prefaces the text: "As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it. This colour has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose." (Goethe, THEORY OF COLOURS, trans. Charles Eastlake)
If one accepts what Goethe says, then this whole book is blue. Yes, think about it.
Having read Tracy Chevalier's other two published works, GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING and FALLING ANGELS, I must believe Chevalier intended that quality of contradiction in "blueness", which is quite remarkable considering that THE VIRGIN BLUE was her very first book, published in Great Britain in 1997. We're receiving it here in the U.S. all these years after the fact, and may consider ourselves privileged, I think, to witness in its pages the emergence of an extraordinarily fine writer.
The qualities that made GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING remain on bestseller lists for so many months --- and that are equally evident in FALLING ANGELS, though that book in its relative darkness is a less accessible read and thus hasn't been as successful --- all are nascent in THE VIRGIN BLUE. The painterly prose, the ability to create a historical setting that takes you in immediately, the keenly drawn characters, and the complex worldview, are all here.
The plot is complex and a little amorphous, hard to delineate, as it develops in parallel on two tracks --- one in the present and one just over 400 years ago at the close of the 16th century. The setting is France, not the more commonly known, sophisticated France of Paris or the Riviera, but rural France along the mountainous border with Switzerland. This is the area where historically the French Huguenots suffered for their Protestant faith, and fled first in the late 1500s toward Geneva and Calvin, and then a century later to America.
Ella Turner, the main character in the contemporary half of the story, is an American descendant of those Huguenots. She has come to France with her husband (she has kept her maiden name), an architect based in Toulouse. They prefer to live out of the city, and it is Ella who chooses the village of Lisle along the River Tarn as their new home. She has three goals for her new life in France: to improve her French so that she can be licensed to continue the practice of her profession as a midwife, to research her ancestral past about which she knows nothing, and to have a baby. As soon as she and her husband of two years make that last decision, Ella begins to dream of the color blue --- and we have our link to the historical half of the story.
In the late 1500s, Isabelle du Moulin is married to Etienne Tournier --- not happily, but solidly --- and they have three children: Petit Jean (Etienne's father is also Jean), Marie and Jacob. The Tourniers are prosperous farmers in the Cevennes valley on the river Tarn. Isabelle's mother is a midwife and has trained her daughter to take up the profession, but Etienne's family does not approve, in part because midwives are constantly under suspicion of being linked to the devil. Thus, upon marriage, Isabelle must give up midwifery. When her mother dies of a bite from a rabid wolf, this seems to the village folk confirmation of her mother's wickedness, and her mother's reputation continues to have an impact on Isabelle for the rest of her life.
The little village where the Tourniers and du Moulins live has joined in renouncing Catholicism along with the nearby Duc de l'Aigle, who provides the villagers with protection. The Tourniers possess a rare thing, a Bible --- God's words in French, the language of the people, as opposed to Latin, the language of priests. Yet Isabelle cannot understand how the words get from the Bible's pages into the mouth of the minister; the act of reading is a mystery that Protestantism has not yet explained to most of the people. The new faith also presents Isabelle with an even worse problem, as the opening pages of THE VIRGIN BLUE recount: These people have a folk tradition that the Virgin Mary has red hair and they affectionately call the Virgin "La Rousse." Isabelle's hair turns red in childhood, and she is called the same --- but what had been a term of endearment before the Duc's conversion becomes a condemnation afterward. Isabelle is forced to cover her hair, and in a scene of terrible intensity, a crowd of villagers also forces her to destroy the statue of the Virgin, to knock it out of its niche of blue.
Four hundred years later, Ella Turner has reddish-brown hair that likewise turns red from the strong sunlight outside a particular church in the Cevennes, where she's researching her ancestry. The parallels between past and present continue to emerge steadily as both stories grow in intensity. The book is relatively short, just over 300 pages --- any longer and the tension, which reaches a sustained climax over both halves of the story in the final 100 pages, would be unbearable.
There are a few problems with the writing, but they're minor. The pacing is slow, probably deliberately so, yet it's still too slow for a plot that relies upon an element of mystery. Chevalier gets away with it because her ability to create a fictional reality --- particularly the historical one --- is so strong that it carries us along through the slow stretches. The proliferation of coincidences, necessary for the parallel between Isabelle's story and Ella's, is somewhat harder to handle and sometimes comes close to breaking that suspension of disbelief essential to all fiction. Comes close, yet manages not to cross the line.
Unlike GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, which was basically a love story, THE VIRGIN BLUE is not a feel-good book. It is a book that will make you uncomfortable, will stretch you and make you think. I expect Isabelle's and Ella's tales to stay with me for a long time --- and that, to me, is the mark of a truly good read.
Reviewed by Ava Dianne Day on January 24, 2011