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The Virgin Blue    by Tracy Chevalier order for
Virgin Blue
by Tracy Chevalier
Order:  USA  Can
Plume, 2003
Softcover, Audio, CD
* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Tracy Chevalier seemingly came from nowhere to overnight acclaim when The Girl with a Pearl Earring was published several years ago. This story of a maidservant in the household of 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is a superbly written novel which continues to enthrall readers. Her next book, Fallen Angels - about a young girl in a Victorian London household - is initially not as eye-catching, but just as good. Now Chevalier's first novel, The Virgin Blue, has been published for the first time in the US. It features dual stories. One is about a modern American woman, Ella Turner. She is in a small village in southwestern France with her architect husband who is on an assignment there. The other tale features Isabelle Tournier and takes place in the late 1500's in the same region. This was a time when there was great strife between Huguenot followers of John Calvin and the Catholics in the area.

As a child, Isabelle is drawn to a church statue of the Virgin Mary, which sits in a niche painted a very special blue. When it is first installed there the sun's rays light up the statue and then Isabelle's hair, turning it a coppery color. From then on she is called La Rousse by the local people who begin to fear her. As the village becomes more strongly Huguenot, the statue is destroyed and Isabelle becomes more of an outsider because of her mystical link to the Virgin. All her life she continues to dream of the virgin and that special blue. Later Isabelle becomes pregnant by Etienne du Moulin and marries into his family, who still fear her. As Huguenots, during the persecutions in the 1570's, the du Moulins are forced to flee to Switzerland. Trouble erupts within the family when the hair of Isabelle's daughter Marie starts to turn the same coppery red color as her mother's.

In the modern story, Ella has high hopes for life in a picturesque small French village and works to improve her French. But in reality the residents are unwelcoming to the American stranger and Ella finds herself with time on her hands. When Ella and Rick decide to start a family, Ella starts to have vivid and alarming dreams which are strangely permeated with a deep blue color. These occur only after the couple make love. Eventually Ella decides to occupy her time by researching her French Tournier ancestors who are from this area. Her search takes her to the local library where she is drawn to librarian Jean Paul. Gradually the strange blue color becomes a stronger presence in her life and inevitably draws her to her ancestor Isabelle Tournier.

It is fascinating to compare this book to Chevalier's later ones and see how she was still fine-tuning her writing skills. The deep interest in history, which continues in the later books, is already present. Chevalier is a master at depicting settings, and the reader can easily visualize the difficult and superstitious times in which Isabelle lived. The author also excels in creating 3-dimensional, believable characters. Though The Virgin Blue is not as accomplished as the author's later novels, it is a worthy first act for a wonderful writer.

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