A book that hooks you, but leaves you wanting more – I think that’s the best way to sum up The Virgin Blue. The story moves between Isabelle Tournier, known as La Rousse for her similarity to the Virgin Mary, living in late sixteenth century France, and Ella Turner, the modern day protagonist. Isabelle’s story is immediately engaging and sympathetic – trapped into a marriage with the cold and calculating Etienne after falling pregnant with his child, and forced to flee her beloved home during the Huguenot persecution, her life is filled with cruelty and suspicion. She is forever forced to suppress herself and her beautiful red hair – the detested reminder of the resemblence she bares to the Virgin. When the inevitable tragedy occurs towards the end of the novel, it is almost too much to bear – and that’s without knowing the character as well as you’d sometimes feel you’d like to. Chevalier keeps her at arms’ length from her reader, which is often a shame.
Ella is less sympathetic, although as the reader we do get to know her better. Uprooted from California to rural France by her husband Rick’s job, she feels alienated and foreign, and plagued by nightmares, her health deteriorates. She knows that her family is originally from that part of France and so she begins some geneological research, which leads her into new friendships, new discoveries, and into the midst of Isabelle’s tragic story. In one sense, the troubled and slightly tortured character of Ella is a fascinating read, but at times she is self-indulgent to the extent that she’s irritating, especially when contrasted with Isabelle, who really does know heartbreak. That said, I did relish some aspects of the story, especially the way in which both characters related to men. Etienne and Rick are set at a parallel: the wrong choices, albeit for quite different reasons. Jean-Paul and the scarred shepherd are the soulmates; at one point the parallel is so strong that you almost venture to wonder if Ella is Isabelle reincarnated!
Overall, a great plot and interesting characters; a compelling read. What stops it from being a five star book, for me, are all the unanswered questions. Does Ella settle in France with Jean-Paul? Where did Isabelle go when she reached the crossroads and appealed for the Virgin’s guidance? Who is Nicholas Tournier and why is he significant? I reached the end of the book and realised I was left to wonder.