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The Lady And The Unicorn
by Rummer Godden
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If you think you wouldn't raise your skirts for a rakish legend about the purifying powers of a unicorn's horn, then maybe you aren't a 15th-century serving girl under the sway of a velvet-tongued court painter of ill repute. In keeping with her bestselling Girl with a Pearl Earring, and its Edwardian-era follow-up, Falling Angels, Tracy Chevalier's tale of artistic creation and late-medieval amours, The Lady and the Unicorn is a subtle study in social power, and the conflicts between love and duty. Nicolas des Innocents has been commissioned by the Parisian nobleman Jean Le Viste to design a series of large tapestries for his great hall (in real life, the famous Lady and the Unicorn cycle, now in Paris's Musee National du Moyen-Age Thermes de Cluny). While Nicolas is measuring the walls, he meets a beautiful girl who turns out to be Jean Le Viste's daughter. Their passion is impossible for their world--so forbidden, given their class differences, that its only avenue of expression turns out to be those magnificent tapestries. The historical evidence on which this story is based is slight enough to allow the full play of Chevalier's imagination in this cleverly woven tale. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
Chevalier, whose bestselling Girl with a Pearl Earring showed how a picture can inspire thousands of words, yokes her limpid, quietly enthralling storytelling to the six Lady and the Unicorn tapestries that hang in the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris. As with her Vermeer novel, she takes full creative advantage of the mystery that shrouds an extraordinary collaborative work of art. Building on the little that is known or surmised - in this case that the tapestries were most likely commissioned by the French noble Jean Le Viste and made in a workshop in Brussels at the end of the 15th century - she imagines her way into a lost world. We are introduced to Nicholas des Innocents, the handsome, irrepressibly seductive artist who designed the works for the cold Le Viste, a rich, grim social climber who bought his way into the nobility and cares more about impressing the king and his court than pleasing the wife who has disappointed him by bearing three girls and no sons. Le Viste's wife, Genevieve, tells Nicholas to create scenes with a unicorn but Nicholas's love of women - and especially of Geneviève's beautiful daughter Claude - inspires the extraordinary faces and gestures of the women he depicts. A great romance unfolds. What makes the tale enthralling are the details Chevalier offers about the social customs of the time and, especially, the craft of weaving as it was practiced in Brussels. There are psychological anachronisms: would a young woman in medieval times express her pent-up frustrations by cutting herself as some teenage girls do today? Yet the genuine drama Chevalier orchestrates as the weavers race to complete the tapestries, and the deft way she herself weaves together each separate story strand, results in a work of genuine power and beauty. And yes, readers will inevitably think about what a gorgeous movie this would make.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This fanciful, engaging tale of the making of the famous unicorn tapestries is woven together as cleverly as the artworks themselves. Dynamic Nicolas des Innocents is proud of his skill as a painter and of his sexual prowess, and displays both at every opportunity. Always in need of funds, he persuades Jean Le Viste, a powerful Parisian nobleman, to commission a series of six tapestry designs of Nicolas's choosing: scenes focused on the unicorn, a fabled symbol of male virility and mysterious powers. Jean's pious wife colludes with the artist, as do her daughter and her lady-in-waiting. Nicolas courts them all. He journeys to Brussels, where his fate becomes intertwined with the family weaving the tapestries, but most of all their daughter, Alienor, whose blindness dooms her to betrothal to a brutish wool dyer. The "family" also includes the workers who assist them, one of whom, shy Philippe, secretly adores Alienor. The deadline for completion of the tapestries is moved up, and tension increases as all concentrate on the task. The major characters' reactions to their world-early 1490s France-are revealed, like the tapestries being woven, a little at a time. The French court and its aristocracy; Flemish weavers, their work ethic, and their powerful guild-all are delineated with the consummate skill Chevalier brought to Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutton, 2000).-Molly Connally, Chantilly Regional Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
Tapestries are rarely the preferred choice of museum-goers. Neither rug nor painting, often muted, remote and incomprehensible, they are an art form only a docent could love. But Tracy Chevalier's latest novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, a vibrant story about a series of medieval tapestries, will change that perception once and for all. Chevalier invites readers to step into the richly imagined world of an actual work of art -- an invitation they would be foolish to decline, considering her success with Girl with a Pearl Earring. With great insight, invention and a remarkable eye for detail, Chevalier breathes life into artists and artisans, their subjects and surroundings and, most important, their magnificent creations.
Little is known about the six elaborate wall-hangings called the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which are displayed in the Cluny Museum in Paris. The artist, though anonymous, is presumed French. The weaving, done in the late 1400s, features the detailed background pattern of flowers and plants known as "millefleur" that was perfected in Brussels at the time. The coat-of-arms displayed throughout the work suggests the identity of its patron: the Le Viste family, social climbers who would have commissioned the tapestries to advertise their wealth, taste and prominence. In addition to being decorative and utilitarian (wall-hangings made large, drafty rooms warmer and more intimate), the tapestries tell the story of a noblewoman's fanciful pursuit of a mythological unicorn. Five of the six panels depict the senses -- smell, hearing, sight, touch and taste. The remaining one, bearing the motto "My Sole Desire," shows a woman in the ambiguous act of removing -- or putting on -- her jewelry.
A scant handful of facts is the inspiration for a sumptuous behind-the-canvas tale of art, ambition and desire, as was the case with Girl with a Pearl Earring. But it is important to note that Chevalier is not simply repeating herself. A character in her new book explains the difference between a painting and a tapestry, observing that a painting is smaller and can be seen in its entirety while, with a tapestry, "You see only a part of it, and not necessarily the most important part. So no thing should stand out more than the rest, but fit together into a pattern that your eye takes pleasure in no matter where it rests." This distinction informs Chevalier's writing throughout The Lady and the Unicorn. Like a master weaver, she uses multiple narrators to tell her story, dovetailing their disparate but equally weighted points of view until the novel itself becomes a tapestry of images, ideas and emotions.
The story begins in Paris in 1490, with a randy and self-absorbed young painter, Nicolas des Innocents. Because his most successful pick-up line involves an off-color story about a unicorn's horn, he is delighted when he is commissioned to design a series of tapestries combining his two main interests: women and unicorns. His patron, nouveau riche powerbroker Jean Le Viste, is blind to the familial and psychological dramas in his own household. But Nicolas, a connoisseur of the opposite sex, instantly understands the sexual longings of Claude, the teenage daughter of the house, and the frustrations of Geneviève, her emotionally parched and embittered mother. He pursues the beautiful Claude, who is equally obsessed with him, only to be blocked by Geneviève, who moves quickly to protect her daughter's virtue.
Luckily, Nicolas has his work to distract him. He knows very little about the complex process of turning a painting into a tapestry. He receives his education at the hands of a family of Flemish weavers who embark on an ambitious two-year plan to complete the project. Georges de la Chapelle and his wife, Christine, run a workshop in Brussels, the weaving capital of the world. Assisted by their children and a few craftsmen, they transform mountains of dyed wool into magnificent weavings. Their household, like Jean Le Viste's, is a hotbed of domestic drama. Here, as in Paris, Nicolas is a catalyst for change.
There is an urgency to Chevalier's characters and their situations -- the artist desperate to make a name for himself, the girl longing to be a woman, the mother mourning her lost youth, the housewife dreaming of a profession -- that makes this medieval world surprisingly vivid and contemporary. Yet it is no accident that Chevalier ends her story in 1492 -- the dawn of the New World -- reminding us that, as the tapestries were being hung, they and the carefully structured universe they represented were about to yield to new art forms and new social orders. With The Lady and the Unicorn, however, this long-vanished world is brought back to thrilling life.
Reviewed by Deborah Davis
Paris, 1490. A shrewd French nobleman commissions six lavish 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 housemother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waitingbefore 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 to finish the tapestrieshis finest, most intricate workon time for his exacting French client. The results change all their liveslives that have been captured in the tapestries, for those who know where to look.
In The Lady and the Unicorn, Tracy Chevalier weaves fact and fiction into a beautiful, timeless, and intriguing literary tapestryan extraordinary story exquisitely told.
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