In her vividly evocative fourth novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, Tracy Chevalier returns to the appealing blend of fiction and art history that she wove together so successfully in her luminous bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, recently adapted into a feature film. Just as that book so plausibly re-imagined the story behind the eponymous Vermeer painting, Chevalier's latest does the same for the famed Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which hang in the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris. She transports us back to 15th-century France and into the richly textured, starkly contrasting worlds of the noble Le Viste family who commissioned the tapestries and the modest family of weavers whose looms brought them to life. Through shifting first-person narration, we witness both the extraordinary subjectivity of art and its power to transform and seduce.
While the cold and dismissive patriarch Jean Le Viste originally intends the tapestries to portray bloody and self-aggrandizing battle scenes, his long-suffering wife conspires to have them changed to show a peaceful tableau of unicorns and maidens. The womanizing and egotistical artist commissioned to design them, Nicholas des Innocents, depicts a story of the unicorn's seduction as a surreptitious flirtation with the Le Viste's daughter, with whom he shares a mutual attraction. But their passion is destined to be thwarted by their differing classes and the girl is sequestered in a convent while Nicholas is dispatched to Belgium to oversee the tapestries' completion.
Nicholas' time with the simple, industrious family of weavers and their wise blind daughter has a profoundly humanizing effect on him. Indeed by the novel's end, each of the characters has changed markedly and their lives, loves and desires have become irrevocably intertwined in the tapestries' threads, infusing the works with multiple layers of meaning that have kept art historians guessing for five centuries. The Lady and the Unicorn bears literary testament to the adage that art imitates life, and Chevalier has once again succeeded at creating a beguiling, incandescent portrait of a distant time and place. Joni Rendon is a writer in Hoboken, New Jersey.