Tracy Chevalier’s first effort at fiction, The Virgin Blue, is indicative of the author’s love of art and history. Its plot is only marginally less sophisticated than that of Girl with a Pearl Earring, suggesting the author’s burgeoning talent. In a storyline that has become quite familiar in recent fiction, the novel contrasts the life of a young woman who has moved to France with her architect husband with a distant relative who lived four centuries earlier, a young woman forced to a difficult and ignoble life.
Not far from where Rick and Ella Turner have settled in Lise-sur-Tarn, Isabelle du Moulin married Etienne Tournier while pregnant with their child in 15th-Century France. France at the time is suffering through the religious upheavals that scour the countryside as strict Calvinist sects wrench themselves away from the Catholic Church, intent upon purifying the religion. Parts of France and the surrounding countries are Calvinist holdouts, sanctuaries for the homeless, as the purists are driven from their lands and their farms and goods are burned to the ground.
Isabelle is easily recognizable with her cascading red hair -- the mark of the Papacy, as it is said that the Virgin had red hair. Once known in the village as “La Rousse,” Isabelle is shamed and marked as “suspect”. Isabelle covers her flaming hair, hoping to pass unnoticed among the other villagers. Her husband, Etienne Tournier, is a distant and controlling man who has never trusted his beautiful young wife, even as he fathers two sons and a daughter with her. But when Isabelle’s daughter, Marie, begins to grow bright red strands of hair among the brown, her mother is terrified -- with good reason. Little Marie’s fate in a cruel world is the start of a mystery that haunts the dreams of her distant relative, Ella, four centuries later.
Indeed, it is her unremitting nightmares and the recurring shade of blue that accompany the dreams which drive Ella’s search for her distant ancestor and their common history. Ella’s life choices become increasingly more difficult, yet never as portentous as in Isabelle’s day. In pursuing the mystery of the past, Ella’s life takes a direction she could never have anticipated.
While Chevalier doesn’t quite pull off the drama of the generational ties, there is a strong presence in the chapters that deal with Isabelle Tournier. The connections to the past are historically compelling, as Isabelle suffers for her simple faith and her stigma, the genetic accident of red hair. The past is tainted by religious intolerance, as one religion cleanses away the beliefs of another, burning homes, villages and memories. This first novel indicates the quality of the work to come in Girl with a Pearl Earring as Chevalier fashions a style of prose to showcase her historical fiction, a genre she has made her own.