A compelling portrait of a young woman out of step with her times.

THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT

A teenage Renaissance bride discovers that her husband of scarcely a year intends to murder her.

Following up her National Book Critics Circle Award winner Hamnet (2020), inspired by the life of Shakespeare’s wife, O’Farrell turns to another woman seen by history only in glimpses. Little is known about Lucrezia de’Medici, married at 15 to the Duke of Ferrara, besides her suspicious death; rumors that she was poisoned prompted Robert Browning’s famous poem “My Last Duchess.” In contrast to Browning’s ever smiling victim, O’Farrell imagines a rebellious spirit less interested in matrimony than in painting the natural world around her. The author develops tension with a split time frame, opening in 1561 in “a wild and lonely place” to which 16-year-old Lucrezia is quite sure Alfonso has brought her to be killed, then circling back to depict her childhood in Florence, including a life-changing encounter with a tiger in her father’s private menagerie. From there the two narratives move forward in tandem: We see Lucrezia growing up to be sacrificed to political maneuvering that mandates her marriage to the suave Alfonso and growing aware in Ferrara that her outwardly courteous and kind husband is brutally determined to cement his shaky hold on the dukedom and ferociously intent on making sure she produces an heir. Her only solace comes in painting wild scenes of imaginary creatures, then covering them up with conventional still lifes approved by Alfonso as proper diversions for his duchess. When she meets Jacopo, an apprentice to the painter commissioned to create her portrait, she finds a soul mate who perhaps offers a way out of her imprisoning marriage. Several grim scenes make clear the mortal consequences of any attempt to escape Alfonso’s clutches: Will Lucrezia take the risk? The rollbacks to earlier periods spark some impatience as Lucrezia’s 1561 dilemma becomes more pressing, but O’Farrell’s vivid portrait of a turbulent age and a vibrant heroine mostly compensate for an undue lengthening of suspense as Lucrezia struggles to defy her fate.

A compelling portrait of a young woman out of step with her times.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-32062-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2022

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Strangely stuffy and muted.

THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN

The little-known story of the Black woman who supervised J. Pierpont Morgan’s storied library.

It's 1905, and financier J.P. Morgan is seeking a librarian for his burgeoning collection of rare books and classical and Renaissance artworks. Belle da Costa Greene, with her on-the-job training at Princeton University, seems the ideal candidate. But Belle has a secret: Born Belle Marion Greener, she is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard, and she's passing as White. Her mother, Genevieve, daughter of a prominent African American family in Washington, D.C., decided on moving to New York to live as White to expand her family’s opportunities. Richard, an early civil rights advocate, was so dismayed by Genevieve’s decision that he left the family. As Belle thrives in her new position, the main source of suspense is whether her secret will be discovered. But the stakes are low—history discloses that the career-ending exposure she feared never came. There are close calls. J.P. is incensed with her but not because of her race: She considered buying a Matisse. Anne Morgan, J.P.’s disgruntled daughter, insinuates that Belle has “tropical roots,” but Belle is perfectly capable of leveraging Anne’s own secrets against her. Leverage is a talent of Belle’s, and her ruthless negotiating prowess—not to mention her fashion sense and flirtatious mien—wins her grudging admiration and a certain notoriety in the all-White and male world of curators and dealers. Though instructive about both the Morgan collection and racial injustice, the book is exposition-laden and its dialogue is stilted—the characters, particularly Belle, tend to declaim rather than discuss. The real Belle left scant records, so the authors must flesh out her personal life, particularly her affair with Renaissance expert Bernard Berenson and the sexual tension between Belle and Morgan. But Belle’s mask of competence and confidence, so ably depicted, distances readers from her internal clashes, just as her veneer must have deterred close inquiry in real life.

Strangely stuffy and muted.

Pub Date: June 29, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-10153-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Berkley

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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