This first novel by Washington native Tracy Chevalier was published in England in 1997—three years before her American debut, the best-selling Girl With a Pearl Earring. Now published for the first time in the United States, The Virgin Blue lacks the elegance of Chevalier’s more-famous work.
The novel alternates the stories of Isabelle du Moulin and Ella Turner. Isabelle, a 16th-century French Huguenot, becomes pregnant with an illegitimate child and marries above her class. Ella, a present-day American living in France, becomes intrigued by a mysterious French librarian who helps research her family history. As Ella’s and Isabelle’s lives unfold, they become connected through dreams and a blue thread from a child’s dress.
Wading through Isabelle’s story is difficult—frequent phrases in untranslated French create the temptation to skim. It’s hard to keep the many characters straight, and they often bog down the sentences:
“Etienne and Bertrand returned from the barn, Etienne joining his parents at the table. Jean glanced up at Isabelle and Susanne. . . . [Isabelle] and Hannah stared at each other. Hannah looked away first. Isabelle missed Susanne’s nod but not its result. Bertrand turned resolutely towards Jean.”
Ella’s present-tense story is easier to get through, and her conversational French—“bonjour,” “merci beaucoup”—is more manageable. But the motives behind her decisions are often puzzling: Why does she fall for the arrogant librarian when her endearing husband has done nothing wrong?
All isn’t lost, though. Chevalier leaves many hidden similarities between Isabelle and Ella for readers to discover: Both are called “La Rousse” for their red hair, both are midwives, and they have similar names. Picking up on these shared traits is enjoyable, and the skillful way Chevalier intertwines the women’s stories makes the book ultimately rewarding.