Tracy Chevalier has an wonderful talent for historical novels plotted around great works of art, imbuing them with the lively interactions and complexities that bring history to life. In The Lady and the Unicorn, the author selects a set of 15th-century tapestries created for nobleman Jean LeViste, who at first plans to adorn the walls of his elegant Parisian home with scenes of the Battle of Nancy.
However, the cooler vision of his wife prevails, and LeViste commissions artist Nicolas des Innocents to render a scene of a lady seducing a unicorn; later the paintings are sent to a studio in Brussels, where they are adapted by a lissier and his staff. This particular studio has an excellent reputation for lifelike renderings of millefleurs, tiny flowers woven into the background of a scene that create a riotous field of color.
Nicolas, quite the ladies' man, experiences a bit trepidation at his new commission, for he is best known at court for painting miniatures. Eventually, Nicolas is seduced by the promise of remuneration and the beauty of one of LeViste's daughter's, Claude, a woman far above his social standing.
Alternating chapters cover a period of two years, from Nicolas' first sketches to the weaver's workshop in Brussels, and the story is told in a variety of voices: Nicolas des Innocents, the artist hopelessly enamored of the betrothed noblewoman, Claude LeViste; the lady herself; the family of weavers - Georges de LaChappelle, his wife and blind, but beautiful daughter, Alienor; and the man who has loved Alienor since their childhood, Philippe de LaTour.
From the larger-than-life architecture of Paris to the small Brussels studio where the tapestries are meticulously woven and the isolated convent where a young woman's virginity is protected from the intrusions of the world, two love stories unfold. Chevalier once again turns art into life, her characters brimming with the exuberance of love, tempered by the strict social mores of a highly ritualized society. The lady and the unicorn tapestries serve as a vehicle for the thwarted passions of those fated to fall in love, weaving a subtle contextual layer into an already magnificent work of art, threads that connect the lovers and bind them forever.
Chevalier's métier is historical fiction, her deft prose juxtaposing believable characters with artistic endeavor. The author's vivid imagery is exceptional, the scenes authentic and fine-tuned, this novel a small jewel that reawakens the past, restoring all to life before fading once more into the pages of history.