The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

13447659Fiction — print. Plume, 2004. 250 pgs. Purchased.

Chevalier’s attempts to answer the mystery behind one of the art world’s great masterpieces — a set of medieval tapestries hanging in the Cluny Museum in Paris today. They appear to portray the seduction of a unicorn, but the story behind their making is unknown. Set in France and Brussels in 1490, Chevalier introduces us to Jean Le Viste, a French nobleman who commissions six tapestries celebrating his rising status at Court. He hires the charismatic, arrogant, sublimely talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them.

Nicolas creates havoc among the women in the house — mother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting — before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven. There, master weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has, including the future of his young blind daughter, to finish the tapestries — his finest, most intricate work — on time for his exacting French client.

Having read and loved Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, I was excited to find this book available at the library used book sale and early anticipated picking it up even though I’ve never heard of these tapestries before. Unfortunately, this book turned out to be an utter disappointment. The book switches between the point of view of eight characters; a difficult task given how short the novel actually is. And the entire novel quickly dissolves into a series of hook-ups followed by a string of illegitimate children. Possibly true, yes, but there is nothing remotely engaging about this particular kind of story. The characters lack depth, and the plot is riddled with cliches.

I’ve read several books where the main character is a womanizer, and I could have accommodated such a description of Nicholas des Innocents. However, Nicholas’ exploits, particularly his desire to sleep with Jean Le Viste’s daughter Claude, are manifested into the tapestries and the unicorns appear less pure and more sinister than I had originally seen them. And, because Nicholas’ exploits are the main plot of the novel, it meanders along without any point or interest on my part.

One comment

  1. Like you I bought this book at a library sale. I haven’t gotten to it yet.. I’m sad to hear this one didn’t quite work. The last Chevalier I attempted was one that I guess is called “The Virgin Blue” is English (I read it in Dutch) and I sort of got stuck after 50 pages (but it might have been the translation?). I do remember enjoying her Falling Angels though..


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