In sixteenth-century France, Isabelle du Moulin and her mother, a midwife who dies from a wolf’s bite, are suspected of witchcraft. In a Protestant community which rejects all reminders of Catholicism, Isabelle is considered with suspicion for her red hair, which is, according to the people from the Cevennes, the color of the Virgin Mary’s hair. Isabelle is thus nicknamed La Rousse. When Etienne Tournier, a boy from a family who hates the du Moulin, makes her pregnant, the family has to hide its reluctance and accept Isabelle as Etienne’s wife. Later, persecutions against the Protestants drive the Tourniers to Switzerland, near Calvin’s Geneva, in a town named Moutier…

Nowadays: Ella is an American woman who moves to France with her husband Rick. They settle in Lisle-sur-tarn, a small town in the south of France. When Ella and Rick are trying to get pregnant, Ella has a nightmare about the color blue. To keep busy and mostly to forget the fact that she feels estranged in France, Ella researches her ancestors. She meets a French librarian, Jean-Paul, whom she grows increasingly attracted too…

The Virgin Blue progressively draws connections between these two woman, Isabelle and Ella, separated by four centuries. Chapters about Isabelle and about Ella alternate, third-person narration for Isabelle, first-person account of Ella’s experience. They produce an impression of distance between Isabelle and Ella, by making the last close to the reader and the first more remote. However, as the similarities and links between the two women become apparent, both narrations becomes intertwined, bringing the past and the present together in a masterful manner.

I had enjoyed both The Girl with a Pearl Earring and Falling Angels, and I decided to give a try to The Virgin Blue. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Tracy Chevalier captures not only glimpses of history and of different cultures with an observant eye (though she got some things wrong), she also has a talent for creating an atmosphere and for showing the complexities of the soul. Having experienced life in a foreign country with a different language (though not like Ella but the other way around), I could totally relate to Ella’s feelings of inadequacy, understand her frustration at trying to express herself in a foreign language in front of impatient people or her annoyance at being incessantly confronted with cliché questions about her country.

I found The Virgin Blue very easy to get into and very enthralling, despite its slow rhythm. It combines an woman’s search for herself and her roots with a past mystery, the whole being seasoned with a touch of supernatural. The Virgin Blue is a great book: I am looking forward to the next Tracy Chevalier’s novel…

Rating: 4/5