The Lady and the Unicorn is a famous series of woven tapestries, created in the 15th century, when tapestries were all the rage among the rich and powerful.
Jean Le Viste, recently ennobled, wants to show to the nobility of France that he is as good as them, so he orders a set of tapestries for his house. He wants them to show the battle of Nancy, but his wife decides that something less violent would fit the dining room better. She wants an allegorical series instead, with unicorns.
The story is told from the points of view of half a dozen people who affect the making of the tapestries, consciously or not. There’s the artist who draws the design. There’s the family of Brussels weavers who make it. And then there’s the lady and the daughter of the Le Viste family, who inspire the artist as he draws the pictures.
Chevalier jumps between the viewpoints, as they all see the creation of thea tapestries from very different angles. The stories overlap and hook into each other – a rather obvious metaphor of weaving.
Nicolas, the artist, is the warp that keeps all the stories together. He’s a horny young man, chasing all the women he meets, seducing them with the myth of the unicorn and its potent horn. At the same time, his love for women and his ability to, nevertheless, see them as individuals is what makes the tapestry a masterpiece.
It’s a lightweight but enjoyable book, and my opinion of it keeps shifting depending on the mood I’m in.
One the one hand it’s very readable: the story flows smoothly with hardly any padding, and the characters really come to life. It’s also a very evocative book: it made me wish I could see the tapestries myself. As usual, Amazon reviewers complain about vulgarity and unlikeable characters, but I found both of these flaws to be limited. There’s plenty of vulgarity and imperfection in life, and as long as it’s interestingly presented, I don’t mind.
On the other hand there’s no denying that the book is superficial and the characters simplistic – Nicolas in particular feels very one-dimensional. A slight smell of cheap romance hovers over the book, with some rather unlikely events and far too modern thoughts in the head of, for example, a 14-year old girl raised in the sheltered confines of a Catholic, noble family.
A good and memorable read but not enough to make me go Wow.
Numerous reviewers had come away disappointed because they had previously read The Girl with the Pearl Earring by the same author. Since I found this one first, it sounds like I have something even better to look forward to.