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Book Club Questions for The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Book club questions for The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell explore the experience of childhood innocence, role of artists, the establishment of power within our families, the loyalty of our closest companions as well as the responsibilities coming with rank and nobility.

The Marriage Portrait is New York Times bestseller released in September 2022. A thrilling and captivating story, poetically written, and a truly riveting tale of women’s fights for autonomy. It will transport you into a forgotten history that feels more than alive.

The Synopsis

Florence, the 1550s. Lucrezia, third daughter of the grand duke, is comfortable with her obscure place in the palazzo: free to wonder at its treasures, observe its clandestine workings, and devote herself to her own artistic pursuits. But when her older sister dies on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight: the duke is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father just as quick to accept on her behalf.
 
Having barely left girlhood behind, Lucrezia must now enter an unfamiliar court whose customs are opaque and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her new husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate he appeared to be before their wedding, the aesthete happiest in the company of artists and musicians, or the ruthless politician before whom even his formidable sisters seem to tremble?
 
As Lucrezia sits in constricting finery for a painting intended to preserve her image for centuries to come, one thing becomes worryingly clear. In the court’s eyes, she has one duty: to provide the heir who will shore up the future of the Ferranese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, the new duchess’s future hangs entirely in the balance.
 
Full of the beauty and emotion with which she illuminated the Shakespearean canvas of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell turns her talents to Renaissance Italy in an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman’s battle for her very survival.

Book Club Questions for The Marriage Portrait

1. From the start, Lucrezia’s temperament is difficult for her mother to tolerate. Are Lucrezia’s intellect and willfulness a liability or a benefit in shaping the course of her life?

2. What distinctions did you notice between the way girls and boys were raised in Cosimo’s household? To what extent are Lucrezia and her siblings permitted to experience childhood innocence?

3. As you read the story of the tigress, what parallels did you see between the entrapment of trophy animals and the Duke’s quest to preserve and expand his dynasty? 

4. Discuss the novel’s portrayals of motherhood. How do Eleanora, Sofia and Emilia’s mother (a cook and wet nurse) provide varied forms of sustenance to Lucrezia at key points in her life? Ultimately, who makes up her true family?

5. Did you trust Alfonso’s initial kindness toward Lucrezia? Is there any room for genuine love in Alfonso’s business of building empires? 

6. In the novel, what is the role of artists? What is significant about Lucrezia’s ability to capture the imagery around her, and the imagery of her mind? How does her artistry compare to that of Il Bastianino and Jacopo, who are at the mercy of their clients? Who are the modern-day equivalents of these celebrity portraitists? 

7. How does Lucrezia cope with her duty to serve as a replacement for Maria? As Lucrezia’s body matures and transforms, how is she affected by her sister’s legacy of womanhood, and by the connection between a woman’s value and her ability to sustain a pregnancy?

8. Are there many similarities between Lucrezia’s parents’ marriage and her marriage to Alfonso? As Eleanora writes to her daughter with advice for establishing power within her new family, what does she fail to understand about the fundamental differences between her daughter’s situation and her own? 

9. Discuss the political fallout caused by Alfonso’s mother and her history of Protestantism. What was it like to read about a society in which religion was interwoven with military might and the wealth of the ruling families? 

10. How did your impressions of Elisabetta and Nunciata shift as you learned more about them? How would you have fared as their sister-in-law?

11. As the Duke’s closest companion, Leonello is loyal at all costs. Does Lucrezia have a similar ally in Emilia? 

12. Read Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess,” quoted in the novel’s epigraph, and revisit Maggie O’Farrell’s note at the end of her novel. What makes the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara such intriguing subjects for creative interpretation? What are your theories about what caused the death of the real Lucrezia? How did you react to O’Farrell’s reimagining of her fate?

13. O’Farrell has been widely praised for crafting poignant, perceptive depictions of life’s unexpected turns. How does THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT amplify aspects of the human experience portrayed in her other novels that you have read?

Additional Recommendations

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Dorothy Moy breaks her own heart for a living.

As Washington’s former poet laureate, that’s how she describes channeling her dissociative episodes and mental health struggles into her art. But when her five-year-old daughter exhibits similar behavior and begins remembering things from the lives of their ancestors, Dorothy believes the past has truly come to haunt her. Fearing that her child is predestined to endure the same debilitating depression that has marked her own life, Dorothy seeks radical help.

Through an experimental treatment designed to mitigate inherited trauma, Dorothy intimately connects with past generations of women in her family: Faye Moy, a nurse in China serving with the Flying Tigers; Zoe Moy, a student in England at a famous school with no rules; Lai King Moy, a girl quarantined in San Francisco during a plague epidemic; Greta Moy, a tech executive with a unique dating app; and Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set foot in America.

As painful recollections affect her present life, Dorothy discovers that trauma isn’t the only thing she’s inherited. A stranger is searching for her in each time period. A stranger who’s loved her through all of her genetic memories. Dorothy endeavors to break the cycle of pain and abandonment, to finally find peace for her daughter, and gain the love that has long been waiting, knowing she may pay the ultimate price.

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
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1926, and in a country still recovering from the Great War, London has become the focus for a delirious new nightlife. In the clubs of Soho, peers of the realm rub shoulders with starlets, foreign dignitaries with gangsters, and girls sell dances for a shilling a time.  
 
The notorious queen of this glittering world is Nellie Coker, ruthless but also ambitious to advance her six children, including the enigmatic eldest, Niven, whose character has been forged in the crucible of the Somme. But success breeds enemies, and Nellie’s empire faces threats from without and within. For beneath the dazzle of Soho’s gaiety, there is a dark underbelly, a world in which it is all too easy to become lost.
 
With her unique Dickensian flair, Kate Atkinson gives us a window in a vanished world. Slyly funny, brilliantly observant, and ingeniously plotted, Shrines of Gaiety showcases the myriad talents that have made Atkinson one of the most lauded writers of our time.

Happy reading! ❤️