I’m a big fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. In case you didn’t know, the challenge inspires readers to “read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from).” In addition, “each book must be by a different author and set in a different country.” Thanks to this enforced variety, participants end up reading books by authors and/or set in countries from across Europe. Of course while it’s easy to read books about or set in places like the United Kingdom, Germany or Russia other countries can be a bit more challenging. So, if you think it’s tough to find books set in or about Belarus, Monaco or Vatican City try Belgium. So far Jonathan Coe’s rather enjoyable 2014 novel Expo 58 is the only one I’ve found so far. That is until I finally got around to reading Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn. Set during the late 15th century with the action alternating between Paris and Brussels this is a novel I could apply towards Rose City Reader’s challenge. After stumbling across a well-worn copy at my local public library I decided to give it a try, hoping I’d enjoy it as much as did Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.
Just like Girl With a Pearl Earring, the story revolves around famous artwork, in this case it’s a collection of tapestries commissioned by Jean Le Viste, a social-climbing Parisian nobleman. Acting as middleman between Le Viste and the Brussels-based weavers is Nicolas, a roguish artist with a penchant for seducing young women. Supporting characters include Le Viste’s beautiful young daughter Claude, his matrimonially unsatisfied and religiously zealous wife Genevieve and a small family of tapestry weavers in Brussels. Again, just like with Girl With a Pearl Earring, brief interactions between these characters produce a permanent and profound impact in the art that’s ultimately created.
With Girl With a Pearl Earring such a tough act to follow, I wasn’t surprised I didn’t enjoy The Lady and the Unicorn as much as I did her earlier novel. But still, it was a relatively fast paced and entertaining read. If nothing else it served as a book set in Belgium I could apply towards the European Reading Challenge.