The Virgin Blue paints with words

Jan. 12, 2004, midnight | By Caitlin Garlow | 17 years ago

Tracy Chevalier has returned to the literary scene with another look into the past through her newest novel, The Virgin Blue. Hailed by book clubs around the nation, Chevalier's book is called "a beautifully crafted story filled with vibrant colors," by the London Times. Although Chevalier's latest piece is not on the same level as the New York Times bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, it does manage to appeal to the audience's emotional side and sense of curiosity.

Ella Turner, an American living with her husband, Rick, in France on a sabbatical, feels isolated in her small town. Her feeble attempts to make friends are exacerbated by her elementary knowledge of the language and strong American stereotypes expressed by the townspeople. Bored at home and unable to work as a midwife without a French license, Ella thinks about starting a family of her own. However, after attempting for several weeks without success, Ella begins experiencing a recurring nightmare. The nightmares lead to sleeplessness, and then psoriasis, a skin infliction. Ella is sure that the dreams are connected in some way to her ancestors who lived in the Cévennes in France.

Meanwhile, Chevalier parallels Ella's story with the tale of her French ancestor Isabelle du Moulin, who lived in the Cévennes 400 years earlier. Isabelle, a beautiful redhead, is nicknamed La Rousse by the town for her auburn locks like the Virgin Mary's. Her intriguing nature and exotic looks attract the attention of Etienne Tournier, the son of one of the most influential families in the Cévennes. The two unprepared teenagers marry due to an illegitimate child, against their parents will, and live in the Tournier house.

While Chevalier created a stylistically beautiful novel in The Virgin Blue, her modern day plot has flaws. Ella's character, while likeable, becomes unbelievable. In the search for information about her family's ancestors, Ella becomes infatuated with a mysterious librarian named Jean Paul. However, Chevalier fails to create a disagreeable character in Ella's husband, and so her disloyalty to Rick is cruel and childish, not adventurous or romantic. Chevalier's mystery plot also falls short of suspenseful. Her use of foreshadowing is extremely predictable and allows readers to stay two steps ahead of the characters at all times.

However, Chevalier makes up for her unsurprising plot and a frustrating protagonist with beautiful stylistic devices and a great second storyline. Chevalier's biggest accomplishment in all of her books is the ability to paint pictures with her words. The colors in her story are so detailed in their hues, that it seems very plausible that Chevalier studied art extensively. In The Virgin Blue, colors are extremely symbolic and vivid. Ella's red highlights, which become visible after spending time in the French countryside, draw a link to her redheaded ancestor Isabelle du Moulin, with whom she shares character traits and a name, among other things. The color blue, which overwhelms Ella in her dreams, takes on three dimensional qualities, as Ella describes how "It moved like it was being buffeted by the wind, undulating toward me and away. It began to press into me, the pressure of water rather than stone" (Chevalier 32).

Chevalier's second storyline, describing the life and troubles of Isabelle, is much more intriguing and authentic. Weaving history into the plot, Chevalier uses the Catholic revolution to add conflict and suspense. Her character descriptions are accurate and sensitive to the time period, as she describes how Isabelle's siblings and her mother died of disease, injury, and childbirth. Isabelle's husband Etienne is controlling and abusive, giving Isabelle minimal respect even for a woman in her time. To create a more realistic setting, Chevalier integrates the local language and terminology into the story, without explanations, forcing the reader to understand through context clues.

The Virgin Blue illustrates the stories of Isabelle du Moulin and her descendant Ella Tournier. Through parallel plot lines, Chevalier creates an interesting and tasteful novel rich with culture and history. While not quite to the standards of Girl with a Pearl Earring, an afternoon with The Virgin Blue is incredibly satisfying.

The Virgin Blue costs $14 and is available at all major bookstores.

Tags: print

Caitlin Garlow. Caitlin is a second-semester senior at last. Her favorite things include making fun of her homeless sister and hunting down her clothes in other people's closets. More »

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