Slight, luminous, and hugely popular, Tracy Chevalier’s 2000 novel, ”Girl With a Pearl Earring,” told a nuanced tale of the powerful attraction between the painter Johannes Vermeer and Griet, the modest, soulful housemaid who (in Chevalier’s account) posed for one of his most mysterious and beautiful portraits.
Now, with her delectable The Lady and the Unicorn, Chevalier has invented another juicy backstory to a great work of art – this time the enormous allegorical unicorn tapestries that hang in the Cluny Museum in Paris. Believed to have been created in the late 15th century by an army of painters, designers, and weavers, and depicting women surrounded by flowers and animals, these elaborate wall hangings present a greater challenge for novelization than Vermeer’s straightforward, erotically charged portrait. Happily, Chevalier’s grand and bawdy tale, once again, perfectly matches the scope and style of its inspiration.
The saga’s roguish antihero is Nicolas des Innocents, a lascivious Parisian painter who is hired in 1490 by the chilly nouveau-riche Jean Le Viste to design a series of extravagant tapestries. Having already impregnated Le Viste’s maid (and tossed her a few coins to ”help with the baby”), Nicolas immediately begins scheming to ”plow” his patron’s randy teenage daughter, Claude. High-spirited Claude falls recklessly in love with the inappropriate Nicolas and soon finds herself confined to a nunnery by her social-climbing parents. Poor, doomed Claude becomes the tapestries’ first model; her clever, unhappy mother, Genevieve, another. When Nicolas travels to Brussels to oversee the weaving of Le Viste’s commission by master Flemish tapissiers, he finds additional muses in the head weaver’s practical wife, Christine, and his lovely, blind daughter, Alienor, soon to be married off to a boorish dye merchant who reeks of the sheep urine used to create blue tints for the thread.
Chevalier has deftly braided the voices of her different characters to create the literary equivalent of, well, an ornate tapestry. The story is recounted from multiple points of view, each narrator fleshed out just enough to stand out from the whole without dominating the overall design. (It’s a technique Chevalier, a versatile stylist, also used to terrific effect in ”Falling Angels,” her 2001 novel about the impact of feminism on Edwardian London.) And so we move from Nicolas’ pungent accounts of plowing maids to Claude’s swooning schoolgirl crush on the lecherous painter. From Genevieve, we get the lamentations of a miserably married woman, punished by her husband for failing to produce a son; from Alienor, the resignation of an intelligent girl who believes, all too correctly, that she has almost no choices. These various human stories are bound together by the larger epic of the magnificent textiles, but make no mistake: The unicorn tapestries are, in the end, just a brilliant conceit for a lively, sexy, and thoroughly entertaining novel.