Tracy Chevalier’s first novel -- published in England before she hit the international bestseller lists with “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “Falling Angels” -- is now being released in the United States. “The Virgin Blue” is apprentice work in one sense: The mystical gimmick that links its two plot lines can’t be taken seriously. But it also shows Chevalier gaining command of the formula -- high-class romance in historical settings -- that would later win her so many fans.
In “Earring,” Chevalier conjured up the 17th century Dutch world of the painter Jan Vermeer; in “Angels,” she tackled Edwardian England. In “The Virgin Blue,” one of her heroines, Isabelle du Moulin, is a Huguenot who flees France for Switzerland to escape Catholic persecution after the Massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572. More than 400 years later, echoes of Isabelle’s life impinge on that of Ella Turner, who moves from the United States to France with her husband, Rick, an industrial designer.
Blond, ponytailed Rick adapts easily to his new job in Toulouse, mainly by acting as if he were back home in California. Ella, however, has a tougher time of it. A midwife, she struggles to update her high school French and despairs of passing the exams to practice her profession in France. After she and Rick settle in the nearby town of Lisle-sur-Tarn, she finds the shopkeepers cool, the neighbors nosy.
And she has nightmares. They seem to be triggered by the couple’s decision to finally have children. They involve a rich, intense shade of blue, the French words of a Psalm that Ella can’t remember learning and a terrifying boom. They impel Ella to find out more about her French ancestors, whose name was Tournier. And this, in turn, leads her to consult the local librarian, Jean-Paul, who is everything Rick isn’t: “small, wiry, dark and calculating,” not to mention picky and abrasive.
Meanwhile, Chevalier fills us in on Isabelle. Also a midwife, she proves to be one of Ella’s ancestors. She marries a Tournier, whose family distrusts her: Isabelle has an uncanny ability to communicate with wolves, and her hair turns red -- reputedly the color of the Virgin Mary’s hair -- at the moment a Protestant mob destroys a statue of the Virgin. The statue is in a niche painted the same vivid blue often used by artists to render the Virgin’s robe -- the same blue that suffuses Ella’s dreams.
After Catholics burn their farm in the Cevennes region, the Tourniers head east for Geneva, the stronghold of Protestant leader John Calvin. Isabelle shares her husband’s Huguenot faith, but she continues to venerate the Virgin and covet cloth of the Virgin’s blue. Settled on a farm in Moutier, just inside the Swiss border -- where some of Ella’s relatives still live four centuries later -- Isabelle can’t escape suspicions that she is a closet Catholic and a witch. The result is an atrocious crime, evidence of which lies hidden until Ella comes to dig it up.
The supernatural basis for Ella’s detective work -- her hair, for example, turns red as miraculously as Isabelle’s -- doesn’t stand much scrutiny. And though we’re meant to sympathize with Ella, “The Virgin Blue” runs the risk of being read quite differently: as the story of a young woman who goes to hysterical lengths to put down roots in a new land, adopting the French spelling of her name, finding ancestors where none exist and cheating on Rick with the first good-looking Frenchman she meets.
Where Chevalier shines is in her clean prose and her descriptions of rural French and Swiss life, then and now. And our doubts about Ella gradually subside as her romance with Jean-Paul -- by extension with France itself -- gathers momentum. The French, she discovers, are like the Cevennes chestnuts from which Isabelle made bread: prickly on the outside but well worth the cracking. Rick’s laid-back attitude begins to seem like indifference, Jean-Paul’s argumentativeness like real concern.
In short, Ella herself becomes French, or reclaims the Frenchness within her. It’s a startling transformation. From the shy, uncertain woman she is at the beginning, breaking out in psoriasis from stress, paralyzed by village gossip, certain her clothes and makeup are all wrong, she turns into an adventurer. “You are very wicked,” Jean-Paul tells her after one rule-tweaking episode in which she turns the tables on those who used to snub her. He means it as a compliment.
From The Virgin Blue
How long does it take to overcome two years of marriage, two more of a relationship?... I had listened to my friends’ stories about their quest for the right man, their disastrous dates, their heartbreaks, and never put myself in their place. It was like watching a travel show about a place you knew you’d never go to, Albania or Finland or Panama. Yet now I seemed to have a plane ticket to Helsinki in my hand.