I’ver read and enjoyed several of Chevalier’s previous novels. Before this blog, I read The Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn. When I found a copy of The Virgin Blue at a bag sale, I grabbed it, figuring it would be a good read for somewhere down the road when I finally got to the bottom of my infinite TBR. Luckily, it was a title my library owned in mass quantities for book clubs and I convinced my book club to read it this month. The catch is that I have to lead the discussion but that’s hardly a hardship for me.
The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier
Other books by Tracy Chevalier reviewed on this blog:
Summary from Goodreads:
Meet Ella Turner and Isabelle du Moulin—two women born centuries apart, yet bound by a fateful family legacy. When Ella and her husband move to a small town in France, Ella hopes to brush up on her French, qualify to practice as a midwife, and start a family of her own. Village life turns out to be less idyllic than she expected, however, and a peculiar dream of the color blue propels her on a quest to uncover her family’s French ancestry. As the novel unfolds—alternating between Ella’s story and that of Isabelle du Moulin four hundred years earlier—a common thread emerges that unexpectedly links the two women.
This was much more magical than the other Chevalier books I’ve read but the summary had prepared me for that. I liked the alternating points of view and how Chevalier used them to move the plot along. At first, I was angry that Isabelle’s timeline jumped around, but it was done very well and I understood why after a while. My biggest complaint with the whole novel was Ella cheating on Rick. That really really bothered me. I hate books where people cheat on each other (Brooklyn for example) and it can often ruin a perfectly good book for me. Besides that, I liked Ella and I thought she was a really great character to tell this story.
I liked Ella, but she was unlike anyone I know and it made it a bit hard to relate to her. She was an American abroad, which I could relate to from my time studying in Europe, but she didn’t try to fit in and she didn’t know the language which would have frustrated me beyond reason. She seemed very lost and had little to do, which is NOTHING like me. I’m always so busy I can’t think. I appreciated her interest in her relatives. I’ve used the free ancestry sites and traced my family back to Germany in the 1500s (if all that can be believed). Her lifestyle and clothing were nothing like what I would do or say so it was hard to sympathize with her. When she cheated on Rick, I had a hard time liking her at all.
Jean Paul was my favorite character despite what he and Ella did together. He was dark and mysterious, the kind of guy I fall in love with in a book. I could see what attracted Ella to him and I loved that he was a librarian. I liked that he was strong but still delicate. In short, he fulfilled my ‘bad boy’ desires for a male lead while still being relatable. I just wish he didn’t smoke. Or sleep with Ella. I wish they were friends with a frustrated sexual chemistry. And no cigarettes.
I related to Ella’s sense of meaninglessness in France. When I studied in Spain and England, it was hard to fill my day. I’d spend hours and hours on school, but that could only take up so much time. I was (and still am) slow to make friends so that wasn’t how it would happen. I felt alone and wanted to go home so I could spend time with my boyfriend (now husband) and friends in Indiana. It’s hard to find something to take up your time. In Spain, I read a lot. In England, I joined a comedy troupe. It’s not ancestry, but it was my way of coping.
I liked the flashbacks to Isabelle best. She was a great character and I found it easier to relate to her. I think it’s easier to relate to people in a time and place so removed from my own because I can’t compare her to myself. With a modern timeframe, I can criticize relationships, choices, clothing and much more easily whereas I don’t know what I would have been like in Isabelle’s time. I enjoyed how Chevalier made the punctuation different for Isabelle’s sections. It helped me remember whose head I was in if I had to put the book down.
I’ll say it once more, but I hated that Ella cheated on Rick. He never did anything that upset her other than his job and she didn’t give him much of a chance. She hid her life from him and it felt like she cheated on him because she was having nightmares. How does that become his fault? I’ve gone through depressions and it’s never made me want to cheat on my husband so I couldn’t comprehend that and it ruined the book for me just enough so it didn’t get a full 5 stars.
The two themes I got from this book is that our history matters and that family will always support you. The first is more interesting to me so I’ll talk about that. Ella felt lost in France but felt her family might help her connect to it, only to find out what she really needed was in Switzerland. It didn’t end up making her connect with a country but with herself. She was able to see herself as part of a history of people instead of a lost individual. Her distant relatives were people she could confide in because they had the same history. Susanne and she were both connected by the nightmare to Marie and Isabelle. Though this was the magical element, knowing their past gave them peace.
Writer’s Takeaway: One of my biggest frustrations with books that head jump is that I can’t remember who is speaking when I pick the book up. I loved how Chevalier managed this by using both a different punctuation rule and different points of view. I could read one sentence and know that it was first person modern punctuation (Ella) or third person unconventional punctuation (Isabelle). I loved this stylistic choice.
I really enjoyed this book and I can’t wait to discuss it with the book club. 4 out of 5 Stars.
This book fulfills 1500-1599 for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.
Until next time, write on.