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Review: The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

Not a book I would usually choose, as I am a bit wary of historical fiction (people often die horribly), but lent to me by my friend Jane.  And I’m glad she did.

It’s a dual-thread-linked-through-history story of Isabelle du Moulin, a girl living in sixteenth century rural France, and her descendant, American Ella Turner, returning to her ancestors’ French roots after her husband is relocated.

Isabelle lives in a village and is regarded with mild suspicion by the other villagers because she comes from a family of midwives, and because as a teenager, her hair turned red overnight, giving her the nickname of “La Rousse” or The Virgin Mary.  Once a sign of affection, this becomes a problem for Isabelle when the village allies itself with the Protestant cause.

Despite this, Isabelle attracts the attention of Etienne Tournier, and they marry.  They do not have a close or passionate relationship, but Isabelle has no-one else to look after her.  I’m always conscious when reading historical fiction of the economic pressure that many women must have felt to get married and I felt very much that this marriage made sense for Isabelle, especially when she felt that she did not fit into village society. It must have felt like a way to acceptance as well as economic survival.

In the modern world, Ella Turner is also trying to fit into French society, finding it difficult and feeling shunned.  She becomes interested in trying to find out more about her ancestors.  She is also having mysterious blue “flashes” which link her with Isabelle.

Ella’s story is an interesting parallel but I do think it’s difficult in parallel tales to give each thread equal weight – one tends to have a more striking setting and situation and it’s difficult to compare being an academic’s wife in the twenty-first century with being a persecuted Huguenot on the run.

Back in the sixteenth century, the religious wars are hotting up and things are getting very complicated for the villagers.  I like the way this is portrayed – no excessively gory details, but it’s very clear how everybody’s daily life has to change forever.  Chevalier intersects the realities of our everyday lives, which we go through now without blinking, with the unpredicabilities of conflict, and that really made me identify with the characters’ plight, despite the five hundred year gap.

I do think of this as an excessively female book! Which is not a bad thing, just wondering what a man would make of it.  There is great emphasis on the multiple plight of Isabelle’s family: as midwives, as child bearers, and finally as child rearers in a male dominated society. I went on a training course recently where I learned that levels of child abuse in patriarchal societies and organisations are much much higher than they are in more egalitarian societies, which was interesting.

There’s also a lot of supernatural, which is not my cup of tea as a plot “hinge”.  However I can see that this was the easiest way of linking the two stories as it would have been very cumbersome and unrealistic to have conveyed Isabelle’s story any other way – it’s unlikely that any written version of these events could ever have been passed down through the generations.

The descriptions of past and present France are very vivid and well executed.

The end is very memorable and I really felt for Isabelle, which is the strength of this book throughout.  It’s not faultless, but it makes you feel.






  1. I sometimes like, and sometimes don’t so much like, Tracy Chevalier’s books. I’m going to look for this one, I think I’ll enjoy reading it.

    As always, a helpful review from you!

    • The general consensus on Amazon is that it’s not as good as Pearl Earring or Falling Angels. On the other hand, this is a very very accomplished first novel.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  2. I read this book long ago and loved the rhythm of it. It has vanished from my memory. But I had read Tracy’s other books and so I read this one. I am always interested in reading about the Virgin Mary. And here, I remember even having the color blue was considered reason for prosecution. Thanks for the post!

    • You are right that the rhythm of it stays, and the ending, and the love between mothers and daughters.

      I’d be interested to read Pearl Earring as well now – do Tracy’s books tend to have art/colour themes?

  3. Jennifer

    For some obscure reason, this reminded me ofmGreen Darkness by Anya Seeton – I”m going to look for it ….

    • I haven’t read it but yes looking at the reviews there seems a lot of similarity with the parallels between present and past, and the deja vu.  I have to say though that I suspect Green Darkness would hit all the scary buttons for me.


      • Jennifer

        It was scary – I loved it! My son read The Girl with the Pearl Earring and he said it’s great. Lots of art references he enjoyed.

  4. Carol S

    This is the Tracey Chevalier novel I’ve enjoyed most. The Girl With the Pearl Earring was beautifully written but then did so well that everything she’s written since, while very well researched, has been in a similar format and hence become for me formulaic. I am very interested in the subjects she chooses and start each new novel in hope but am always let down now. I wish she’d dare more, explore more.

    • That’s such a shame to hear. Often writers become more inventive as they become more experienced – more skilled and therefore more confident to take risks. Interesting to see the opposite happening – maybe a writer becoming boxed in by their success?

  5. My feeling was that this is a very good first novel. I read it after “Girl with a Pearl Earring’ , which I enjoyed, and ‘Falling Angels’ which I didn’t and I do think that is typical of Chevalier’s writing. She can be very good and she can really miss the mark. I’m looking forward with some trepidation to read ing her latest novel over the summer.

  6. I love historical non-fiction (medieval especially!) but not quite so keen on historical fiction for some reason. I do like the sound of this book though and find your review fascinating as always Denise. You are so good at this, always giving such a concise ’round-up’ of every book you read. I’m looking forward to reading my soon-to-be acquired ‘new’ book first though… 😛

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