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Compelling 'Blue' links past and present

The Virgin Blue, by Tracy Chevalier. Plume, 305 pp., $14 paperback.

Two years before Tracy Chevalier wrote her best-selling "Girl With a Pearl Earring," she penned her first novel, another historically based work of fiction called "The Virgin Blue." But while "Girl With a Pearl Earring" stayed resolutely in the past, "The Virgin Blue," released for the first time in the United States last month, bounds back and forth in time. It chronicles the stories of two women born four centuries apart yet inextricably linked by mysterious family parallels. Part historical fiction, part mystery, "The Virgin Blue" is a compelling page turner.

The book begins with the travails of young Isabelle du Moulin, known as La Rousse because of her red hair and her devotion to the Virgin Mary in a France unsettled by the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation. In quick order, we hear of the heartbreaking desecration of her village's beautiful Catholic church, the loss of her mother and sister, and her marriage to the wealthy but cruel-hearted Etienne Tournier in order to save her remaining family from poverty.

Four centuries later, American midwife Ella Turner stumbles on Isabelle's story when she moves to a small town in France with her newly relocated architect husband. While Rick dives deeper and deeper into his work, 28-year-old Ella finds village life less than the idyllic sojourn she had hoped. As a foreigner, she becomes the object of curiosity and condescension for her rather unfriendly neighbors, who make her "feel lost the moment I thought I'd found home."

Ella attempts to connect to her surroundings by exploring her French ancestry, discovering her lineage to the Tournier family through information from a Swiss relative. She begins to frequent one of the area libraries, where she strikes up a tentative friendship with a surprisingly sophisticated if slightly prickly librarian, the handsome Jean-Paul.

In Jean-Paul, Ella finds not only solace from her isolation but a partner in her quest, as strange visions, dreams bathed in the color blue, and historical clues begin to draw her on a fascinating journey into her family's dark past.

As the parallel tales unfold, the correspondences between the two protagonists get more and more intense and intricate, often straining the bonds of credulity and heading the book in the direction of the supernatural. But Ella's tale, especially as she grapples with her very real and very contemporary feelings about the two men in her life, is emotionally involving.

Be forewarned. "The Virgin Blue" takes a while to draw the reader in, starting as it does with the drier tone of Isabelle's story. While there are some poetic turns of phrase, Chevalier's writing is rather cryptic, often stilted and convoluted in the historical sections. Those not well versed in the details of the Protestant Reformation may find themselves occasionally at a loss. (However, a quick read of the historical note at the book's end is quite helpful.) And while Chevalier's descriptions of events that evoke other eras are vivid, they are passionless. She never really gets under the skin of her main characters. Etienne and his mother are hardly more than monstrous cartoons, and their treatment of Isabelle is infuriatingly, inexplicably callous. Even through the explication of Isabelle's suffering, there is a sense of detachment that prevents it from being felt by the reader.

The novel also gets a little hard to follow as the plot careens back and forth between the centuries. However, Ella's story, written in the first person, is gratifyingly direct. As we are drawn more and more into her search for meaning and understanding, the story takes on an urgency and immediacy that make the book hard to put down. Her shocking discovery provides a suspenseful climax. However, it is the lovely denouement that follows that readers may find more memorable.

Without tying things up too neatly, Chevalier manages to palliate the sting of tragedy with a glimmer of hope.

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