The Virgin Blue, by Tracy Chevalier, is a curious and thoughtful book, and a bit of a category-defying one, about how religion affects two different women, distantly related, and how the conflicts about religion play out in the society around them. It bills itself on the back cover as “part detective story, part historical fiction,” but that is a bit of a misnomer. The historical fiction part isn’t about a famous person, as most historical fictions are traditionally–but maybe that’s a good thing, as in the huge five-volume non-fiction compendium called The History of Private Life, who knows? At any rate, Ella Turner, who pursues her family history in alternate chapters, eventually manages to “touch base” through time with her distant ancestress, Isabelle du Moulin, while living in France with her own husband, and getting to know the French people and the French countryside.
The book is a sort of a mystery as well, and a love story, because not only must Ella accept and come to terms with a large degree of loss in terms of history, but she also falls in love while in France (spoiler alert) with someone other than her husband, and this has certain consequences.
The two women’s stories shadow and reflect upon each other’s conflicts, Isabelle’s as a Huguenot in changing France, hunted by Catholic enemies, accepting a far less than perfect life with a brutal husband, and Ella’s, lost in a society that doesn’t seem to value her or appreciate her differences, but gives her the famous French cold shoulder.
Actually, to say that the two women’s stories are similar is an understatement, because some of the same sensations, exact experiences, and thoughts occur to the two of them in a sort of spooky and extra-sensory fashion, as if Isabelle were speaking to her descendant from the grave. And the grave is concerned in more than one way, though I won’t give that matter away.
A lot of men might think that this is a book mostly for women, but merely because it has a female character in the lead (who is also a midwife) and deals with some haunting and emotional experiences are not reasons to dismiss it as not fit to read for half of the human race. In fact, a lot of men might be improved by a reading of this book, in the sense that they might become more sensitized to some of the ways women think of and process historical data, the more personal way some women choose to interpret data, and the like.
And the picture of a contemporary small French town is yet another reason to reach for this book. Like small towns everywhere, these are gossipy, close-knit, and somewhat homogenous, but loveable in a lot of their characteristics, as Ella comes to find. I hope you will pick up this book soon and enjoy it as much as I did. For additional reading by this author, you might pick up Girl With a Pearl Earring or Falling Angels.