Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Genre: Historical fiction, medieval fiction

Age Range: 15+ … if you are below 12, you will definitely not enjoy this book or this review.

Synopsis: This novel imagines the creation of the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries of the Parisian Musée de Moyen Age (formerly the Cluny Museum).

When lusty painter Nicholas des Innocents receives a commission to design a tapestry for the icy Jean Le Viste, he thinks he’s going to create a battle scene. But an encounter with Le Viste’s vivacious daughter, Claude, and sad wife, Genevieve, convinces Nicholas to change the design – to the seduction of the unicorn instead. The unicorn is both a story Nicholas habitually uses to woo girls like Claude…but the unicorn also comes to represent Genevieve’s desire to withdraw from the world. In the years Nicholas dedicates to the creation of the tapestries, he has occasion to consider and reconsider women’s desires – spiritual, vocational, romantic – and makes longing central to the tapestries, uniting them through the phrase “À mon seul desir.” Following the process of creating intricate medieval artwork, The Lady and the Unicorn is woven out of the voices and perspectives of characters from Paris to Brussels, from palaces to workshops to convents and ale-houses. Like a tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn can be appreciated as a whole or in its small, intricate set-pieces. Chevalier shows great attention to detail, reviving the art of tapestries for modern readers and giving texture to medieval life. That being said, if you are looking for characters that you will like and identify with, this is probably not the book for you. There are straightforwardly sympathetic characters later in the book, but Chevalier intentionally makes the deep flaws of the main figures, Nicholas, Genevieve, and Claude, central to the plot. If you don’t like the main characters, Chevalier nevertheless asks you to consider when and whether they deserve sympathy.

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“Taste,” from The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries. Flemish. 1490-1500. Tapestry. Musee National de Moyen Age.

A strong historical novel and an interesting look into medieval craftsmanship.

You can buy The Lady and the Unicorn here

Read More Analysis here

The unicorn in this novel is wholly metaphorical; however, the content of the metaphor evolves according to the teller. In the first section, Nicholas characterizes himself as a unicorn. He regularly tells the story of the unicorn’s seduction to seduce women. The rate of his success is revealed in the form of an impregnated housemaid whose name he no longer remembers…and shortly thereafter we see him use the story on the daughter of the house…and he uses it AGAIN when he gets to Brussels. Women, it seems, can’t get enough of unicorns. The success of this pick-up line is saved from repetitiveness because Chevalier shows how different women “read” the story differently. Whereas the story is a total con-job in the case of the first housemaid, the last time Nicholas tells the story, the girl sees in it a her to save herself.

Because Nicholas is so…er…animal in his interpretation of the unicorn, he’s surprised when his patron, Genevieve de Nanterres suggests the story of the unicorn’s seduction for her husband’s tapestries. For her, the unicorn’s seduction follows the lines of the Christ-as-unicorn metaphor. Her husband’s agent, Leon de Vieux, interprets the unicorn tapestries as allegories of the five senses: hearing, touch, taste, sight, smell. The sixth tapestry, called “À mon seul desir,” allows the viewer to interpret the series as either a sensual seduction or a leave-taking from worldly pleasures: the image of a lady standing in the door of a tent has her either taking on or putting away her jewels, either stepping into the world or out of it. This collage of perspectives introduce readers to the major interpretations of the tapestries, infusing academic theory with emotion and personal history.

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As the novel follows the conception, design, creation, delivery and display of the tapestries, the meanings of the tapestries change alongside the image of the unicorn. During each stage, Chevalier provides a chapter in a different voice. Each of them sees something different. Nicholas first sees a job, then a way to keep his obsession with Claude alive, then belatedly, his own evolving recognition of women as humans who exist beyond his own desire. Georges the Brussels weaver sees a job that will be the making of his workshop’s reputation. Alienor, who is blind, sees with her other senses and learns to bend the artist to her own purposes. As a reward, Nicholas immortalizes her as the maiden in the Sight tapestry, who has a (literal) handle on the unicorn.

So…hurrah for Chevalier’s masterful shaping of form to suit her content.

That being said, I think this book is less popular than Girl with a Pearl Earring because it refuses to romanticize artists, muses, or the past.

I have distinct memories of listening to The Lady and the Unicorn’s audiobook with my dad. I would have been sixteen or so and the book frustrated me greatly. (Also, given all of the seductions and shenanigans going on, it was super awkward to listed to with a parent…but we had no idea what was going to happen. Unlike a book, you can’t just flip through to check the content.)

As a teen, I hated the character of Claude, who is one of Nicholas’s muses. I thought she was stupid and venal, thoughtless and selfish. I was horrified by her flirtation with the pretty but boorish Nicholas. I empathized with Claude’s awakening desire, but Nicholas is so overtly lecherous that I was revolted by Claude’s obsession with him and her refusal to see him plainly. (I hated Nicholas even more, but my hatred for him was simple. I wanted Claude to be better than she was.)

As an adult reader, I’m inclined to be more generous. She’s going through her sexual awakening, she has no agency in who she is going to marry, and her mother is often purposefully opaque about matters of sexuality. But here’s the thing, as a sixteen-year-old reading about a sixteen-year-old character, I fully believed that Claude had the capacity to think and choose. Chevalier cannily refuses to make Claude a victim of upper-class coddling. Claude does have access to sexual knowledge through her maid, Marie-Celeste’s bawdy songs and Claude herself judges Marie-Celeste for not learning the lessons these songs teach. (Momentary pleasure often brings with it lasting social censure. Attraction is not the same as love.)

Even if judgment on Claude’s desire for an unworthy man is overly harsh, Chevalier gives Claude a more serious moral failing. Claude makes promises to help people in need; however, she is so self-centered that she then not only forgets to keep those promises, but expects the people she has failed to help her in turn.

Anyways, what does this last bit have to do with unicorns? I’m not sure. Except, perhaps, that young maidens invested in narratives of purity are perhaps not very skilled at sympathy.

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