Details: (c) Tracy Chevalier 1997; Pub Plume 2003; ISBN 0-452-28444-9
Verdict: The virgin blue is a piece of fluff.
Reasons for reading it: I am a bit of a sucker for books with classical paintings on the cover, and I had heard vaguely good things about Chevalier.
How it came into my hands: The anglophone crowd's book swap.
I'm willing to cut middlebrow chicklit quite a lot of slack, but The virgin blue reads almost like a parody of the worst aspects of that genre. It's readable and the characters are tolerably detailed, and the historical bits set in the Cevennes in the 16th century are original enough to make tVB stand out a little bit from the mounds and mounds of similarly generic romantic fiction. It's not actually a terrible book, just very, very bland and the specific features it does have are ones that annoy me.
I can't stand the adultery trope where the heroine is married to a basically decent but rather dull guy, and considers not being "in love" with him a justification not only for leaving him but for cheating on him with a dangerous but romantic love interest. And tVB is an absolutely egregious example of this trope; there is nothing convincing wrong with the marriage at all, and the only evidence that Rick is supposed to be such a terrible husband is that he gets mildly upset when he discovers Ella's affair. Meanwhile, the relationship between Ella and Jean-Paul is equally unconvincing. He's romantically Gallic, and that's about it for characterization, and although described as "dangerous" he docilely accepts Ella commanding him to help her with her research project and then yelling at him for taking over, and then later passively accepts her seduction attempt. I simply couldn't see what either of them even saw in eachother, which makes it even harder to accept the true love transcends morality type of setup.
The historical sections are slightly stronger, but not a lot. Isabelle is an interesting and sympathetic character and not too much a modern woman transplanted into a historical setting. The historical detail is rather patchy; the book is packaged in a way to make it very clear that Chevalier has done some research, but the end result looks as if she's picked a couple of salient points and the rest is just stage set. There were various odd anachronisms and the narrative is quite confused about who was on which side in the religious wars of the period portrayed. The other problem with the historical section is that a lot of it is very much in the misery lit style, with a bit of rape and violence and child abuse proudly laid out so you can be sure that the book is Serious and Literary. The twist at the end is quite dramatic, though.
Basically, tVB is too blatantly wish-fulfillment fantasy; the heroine gets to discover her authentic (and authentically miserable) French roots, and falls in love with an implausibly romantic French guy. Probably the best thing about it is the incidental female characters, who are unusually well drawn for a book of this genre.